S.C. education leader wants more summer school money, nurse in every school when students return


COLUMBIA - South Carolina's top education official wanted $115 million for summer school programs to get some of the state's most vulnerable students back on track after missing at least 10 weeks of in-person classes because of the coronavirus.

But Accelerate SC, the state's special reopening committee, only recommended about 10% of that from the $1.9 billion of COVID-19 relief the federal government is giving the state.

So, state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman is cutting her ambitious plans while also planning to go above their heads to the governor and ultimately the General Assembly to see if they will set aside more money before voting on the final plan to spend the pandemic money next month.

The current funding is enough to provide one week of summer school to help special education students, younger elementary students struggling to read and a smaller group of kindergarten through eighth-graders who could use the extra academic help, education officials said.

At a special meeting Thursday of educators making plans to reopen public schools in the fall, Spearman called her discussions with Accelerate SC members a "classic chicken or the egg" problem. They asked her how many students she wanted in summer school. She said that was impossible without knowing how much money she would have to spend.

Spearman's group also discussed other fall plans. She would like to get a full-time nurse in every school, saying in the new COVID-19 world, it is just as important as having a police officer. Officials are trying to determine how many more nurses would have to be hired, estimated to cost up to $15 million.

Other committee members recommended a mental health team of counselors, teachers, administrators and outside therapists to check on students who might have had difficulties during the school shutdown.

"The main challenge in reopening for summer programs is the same we're going to have in the fall, and that is parents, students and staff feeling it's safe to come back to school," said Alan Walters, state school board member who is also executive director of safety and risk management for the Georgetown County School District.

The committee also heard a presentation from a focus group of teachers arranged by the state Education Department.

They said safety was their first priority, followed by getting their students caught up. They all wanted fewer standardized tests next school year to increase instruction time and prevent unfair comparisons after the pandemic chaos.

The focus group also was skeptical about proposals to have smaller groups of children in classrooms while the rest of the class learns online, rotating the groups either daily or weekly.

According to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's daily update Monday, 10,178 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in South Carolina, including 90 Monday and a total of 547 since Friday.

Over the Memorial Day weekend and holiday, DHEC also announced 21 more deaths, bringing the state death toll to 440. Those deaths announced during the weekend included one victim from Sumter County and two from Clarendon County, bringing the county-level death tolls to 18 and 38, respectively. Lee County has had 13 people die, according to DHEC.

Clarendon County's death toll remains the third-highest in the state. With less than 34,000 residents, according to U.S. Census data for 2019, Clarendon only trails the state's two most populous counties, Richland and Greenville, which have more than 415,000 and 523,000 residents, respectively.

Sumter County Coroner Robbie Baker said his office has been notified of or has knowledge of only 12 virus-related deaths in the county, but numbers among local and state agencies have varied throughout the pandemic based on delays in reporting up and down the chain and tracing investigations into patients who died out of the county.

Baker said he is attempting to contact DHEC to ask about the six additional deaths so everyone can be on the same page.

The Sumter Item's Kayla Green contributed locally.