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Social distancing markers, face masks, hand sanitizer and parents dropping off kids in the parking lot with school officials for daily temperature checks will be just some of the new looks to school this year in Sumter.
Some Willow Drive Elementary School students got a taste Thursday of what Sumter School District's hybrid learning model will probably look like when Sumter moves to a blend of virtual and in-person instruction later in the school year. The school's morning activities were part of the district's week-long Learn, Evaluate, Analyze and Prepare (LEAP) Days for elementary- and middle-school students across the county.
In mid-July, the state Department of Education required every district that planned to begin the year with full virtual instruction, including Sumter, to offer the LEAP Days as a face-to-face orientation and evaluation for students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade before school officially starts. The district scheduled the five days for this week, but student attendance isn't mandatory.
Willow Drive Principal Preston Spratt said about 45 students, roughly 10% of total enrollment, have been in the school this week for LEAP.
Every district school has coordinated the LEAP Days in its own way. Spratt wanted to offer evaluation and instruction four days (Tuesday through today) for all students in grades 1-5. Monday was an assessment day for pre-kindergartners, and kindergarten students are in school two days this week, he said.
Given the coronavirus pandemic, students have not been in the school since mid-March when the district switched to online instruction. That is the case statewide for all public schools and for most of the nation, as well.
"It's been a true joy to have children back in the building," Spratt said. "The teaching is going really well, our students are knowing that they are cared for, and we are getting to lay eyes on them."
One of the state's intentions with LEAP was to have districts and schools touch base with certain students who went largely unaccounted for in the spring after the move to remote learning. But LEAP was considered a good evaluation and preparation method for all elementary- and middle-school students, given the sudden school closures in March associated with the spread of the virus.
Spratt said his teachers' focus this week with students has centered on math, reading and social and emotional support.
Students this week at Willow Drive are also getting the chance to familiarize themselves with learning devices and the online learning platform, Spratt added.
To accommodate social distancing of 6 feet, class sizes this week have been capped at 10 students and most classes have averaged about seven students per day, Spratt said.
Given those protocols, one of the biggest visible changes at Willow Drive is that classrooms now have just 10 desks and chairs for students, and all seats are 6 feet apart.
All teachers, students and staff wear face masks, take part in new routines, and safety is the priority, Spratt said.
It's all a new way of doing school in the future in a hybrid model of two days of in-person instruction and the remainder of the week at home and virtually.
"We have let these students know that when we come back in hybrid, they are going to be the leaders and the ones who teach their classmates how we do school now," Spratt said.
Sumter will begin the year only with virtual, live instruction for students on Friday, Aug. 28 - which will be an enhancement from the home-based distance learning in the spring, district officials said.
After the virtual start, district administration will re-evaluate every two weeks whether it can implement a hybrid model based on local COVID-19 incidence rates and safety from the virus.
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