Officials: South Carolina School Plans Uncertain, But Nothing Like Before

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — State and local education officials are still trying to determine how to return South Carolina students to school in several weeks — whether in person or online — as COVID-19 cases spike across the state.

During a special House committee Wednesday, education officials promised a small group of legislators the new school year would be nothing like what happened in March when the virus caused the sudden closing of schools and teachers and administrators scrambled to implement online learning in days.

Attendance will be taken every day and there will be academic standards just like a normal school year, state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said Wednesday.

“The expectations will be much higher — that students must be engaged every day,” Spearman said.

There has been no summer vacation for Spearman and local school administrators across the state as they try to revamp decades of education norms, such as classes of 20 or 30 students, buses full of children and even recess.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases continue to climb. For more than a month, South Carolina has been in the top four states for newly diagnosed cases adjusted by population.

And as the virus continues to spread, deaths are mounting. South Carolina has averaged nearly 33 deaths a day over the past two weeks. The same average 14 days ago was 15 deaths per day.

Hospital beds are filling, with only about one in eight beds in the state open. About 19% of those beds have COVID-19 patients, according to the state Department of Heath and Environmental Control.

Amid the escalating cases and as districts finalized carefully considered plans, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster used his power to strongly encourage schools to offer in-person classes five days a week to any student.

Spearman, who was elected independently, disagreed with McMaster’s idea.

With the Sept. 8 deadline to start the school year looming, Spearman, whose office has the final say on the reopening plans of all the state’s more than 80 districts, said she hopes to approve the first batch of those plans this week.

Spearman told the House COVID-19 Public Education Committee that teams of her employees are reviewing everything from social distancing and cleaning guidelines to how to handle special education students to what happens when a student or teacher is diagnosed with COVID-19.

“It’s something you have to read and then reread,” Deputy Superintendent David Mathis said.

While Spearman disagreed with the governor about five days a week school, she said there is one non-negotiable item that has to be in every plan — districts must give children a chance to get to school in person to meet teachers, even if they choose an all-virtual school year.

“I still want the schools to lay eyes on children at least once,” Spearman said.

Districts are proposing a wide range of plans. Some will allow students to attend five days a week of in person classes. Others are starting with all online learning except possibly a day to come and pick up a school-offered computer and meet teachers in person.

Many districts are going with plans to split students into groups and have them attend a day or two a week, with virtual learning other days.

Lawmakers largely praised Spearman and education officials Wednesday for their flexibility and their dedication to student safety, both when the pandemic started and throughout the summer as the virus worsened.

“You can’t learn — none of this other stuff is important — if you aren’t safe,” said Rep. Wendy Brawley, a Democrat from Richland County.

Rep Terry Alexander asked Spearman to also work on making sure teachers feel safe and appreciated for going back to school.

“I want them to come back safely too. But I want them to come back safely with confidence,” said Alexander, a Democrat from Florence.