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Online school? In person? The back-to-school debate went into high gear on Wednesday in South Carolina amid the pandemic.
In a news conference, Gov. Henry McMaster called for all the state's public schools to offer in-person instruction five days a week this fall and proposed the start date be pushed back to the day after Labor Day to allow districts and teachers more time to prepare.
Noticeably absent from McMaster's event was state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, who reportedly declined an invitation to attend.
At the time of governor's news conference, Spearman also released a statement that was a push-back on the governor's request, representing a rare public disagreement between McMaster and the state's top education official.
How things play out going forward, both statewide and locally, are unsettled.
Last week, on July 6, Sumter School District announced, with unanimous approval from its Board of Trustees, it will begin the fall with virtual-only learning without in-person classroom instruction. According to a state Department of Education spokesperson, Sumter was the first of the state's 81 districts to formally announce its plan to begin the school year online.
Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox said at the time the district's decision was based on state Department of Health and Environmental Control data that classified Sumter as a "high-risk community."
District survey results from earlier this summer of parents' desires to send their children back to school, given COVID-19, were mixed with about 50% responding they would do so and another 50% saying they wouldn't agree to send their children back.
In the district's decision-making process, it also attempted to follow guidelines from a 13-person state Department of Education taskforce called AccelerateED, which was considered a panel of educational experts and convened by Spearman.
That taskforce's guidance called for districts in counties with a high COVID-19 incidence rate, as measured by DHEC, to begin the school year with full distance learning and no in-classroom options, according to taskforce member Patrick Kelly.
Kelly, the director of governmental affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, the largest teacher association in the state, spoke Wednesday with The Sumter Item.
Kelly said 45 of 46 counties in the state currently fall into DHEC's high virus spread category. Only Marlboro County is considered a medium spread county for COVID-19 this week. The taskforce recommended a "hybrid model" of instruction for medium category counties. That would mean part online instruction and part in-class instruction each week for students.
Kelly noted that last week there were seven medium-spread counties in the state, according to DHEC, as opposed to only Marlboro this week.
Last week, DHEC data given to the taskforce showed that, as of July 5, Sumter County's percent of people testing positive was higher than any other county in the state. Sumter was seeing 34.3% of its tests coming back positive. Next-highest was Colleton County at 28.4%. Seven counties were in the 20s, and the rest were in the teens and below.
Sumter County had its highest single-day count of new confirmed cases on Wednesday. Recording 93 new confirmed cases according to DHEC data, Sumter had previously been maintaining highs in the 40s and 50s.
Kelly said he supports Spearman's comments, saying they were responsive to local health conditions. He added his impression of McMaster's statements was that the governor wanted districts to offer in-class instruction regardless of the rate of spread of COVID-19, and he said he isn't in agreement with that.
"I trust a local district to better know their local health conditions and their available resources," Kelly said, "than I do a blanket one-size-fits-all mandate from Columbia."
EDUCATORS' STATEMENTS FROM WEDNESDAY
State Superintendent Molly Spearman
"Every South Carolina parent must be afforded the option to choose virtual learning or a face to face model for their child this school year. The pandemic has shown the vital importance of our public education system and the broad range of services beyond teaching it provides for our students every day. Our goal must be a return to five day a week in-person instruction as safely and as soon as possible.
We cannot, however turn a blind eye to the health and safety of our students and staff when the spread of the virus in some of our communities is among the highest in the world. School leaders, in consultation with public health experts, are best positioned to determine how in-person operations should be carried out to fit the needs of their local communities. I remain committed to supporting them in this endeavor and will only approve those plans that offer high quality options and keep safety as their top priority."
Sumter Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox
"The information from the governor is being processed and discussed as a team. There are several factors that we take into consideration regarding the safety and well-being of our students and staff when decisions are being made."
POLL QUESTION FROM THE ITEM:
The Sumter Item asked readers in a weekly poll last week if they supported Sumter School District's decision to start school on Aug. 17 with online-only learning.
As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, there had been 651 responses, and results were mixed. A total of 46% of respondents supported the district and school board's decision to begin the fall with online learning. A total of 34% opposed the decision, and another 10% said they thought the decision was made too early. A total of 8% said they supported more of a "hybrid model" with a mix of online learning and limited in-person class time.
FOR ONLINE: Link for the percent positive stats: https://www.scdhec.gov/sites/default/files/media/document/COVID19-Recent-Disease-Activity-Department-of-Education_7.6.2020.pdf
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