SCISA schools prep to reopen their campuses

Changes include lunch in classrooms and no locker or water fountain access


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Preparing for a year like none other.

That's the best way to describe summer preparations by area SCISA private schools for the upcoming start of the 2020-21 school year, given the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because of various factors such as smaller class sizes and a tuition-based enrollment structure, it's not much surprise that all five tri-county SCISA schools are preparing to start the year with face-to-face instruction as a primary option for families.

But with the pandemic continuing and safety as a priority, school will look much different, according to all five school leaders who spoke recently.

Face masks, teacher shields, daily temperature checks, no outside visitors, water fountains off limits and students eating lunch in the classroom and other designated areas are some of the many changes that have been put into place.

Thomas Sumter Academy in Rembert will be the first of the five to reopen when it does so Wednesday. It expects to have about 310 students on its local campus and will conduct in-person instruction to start the year.

Last week, the TSA campus was filled with teacher meetings and review of new safety protocols that have been established. Head of School Frank Martin created a pandemic return-to-school committee that spent the summer implementing those changes.

Students and teachers must wear masks at all times, Martin said, and class sizes were modified to allow for social distancing. Specific protocols are also in place if a student or teacher has a virus symptom or tests positive for COVID-19.

Sandi Dixon, head of TSA's Lower School Division, told a group of about 10 elementary teachers on Friday a key for the school year will be flexibility.

For example, lunch for students will take place in their classrooms or outside.

"We're all going to have to be flexible," Dixon said, "and understand that things are going to change. You may do something one day and decide that it's not going to work. Then, we will debrief, share ideas and try again. It's all going to be different this year, and we just need to be ready for that."

She added that student health and safety is of utmost importance. Martin ordered sanitation supplies and is looking to purchase more, he added.

The entire TSA community thinks face-to-face instruction is the best learning modality, he said, and everybody plays a part in carrying that out effectively.

"I feel very confident in our faculty, staff and our students in abiding by the rules that we have established to ensure that we minimize and mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus," Martin said.

In the City of Sumter, Wilson Hall Headmaster Fred Moulton said he also thinks in-person, on-campus instruction is critical, but the school is also offering parents the choice of live virtual learning, given the pandemic.

The school pushed back its start date about a week to Aug. 25 for students in grades 1-5 and Aug. 26 for students in grades 6-12. Preschool and kindergarten levels begin Aug. 31.

Based on parents' surveys, Moulton said he estimates 600 to 625 will start the year on campus, and 100 to 125 will begin with remote learning. Students can change their instructional model with a 48-hour notice, he added.

Face masks are required for students, and a block schedule to minimize student traffic has also been implemented.

In the hallways, all student lockers have been closed off.

Moulton said the school purchased Chromebooks for all Lower School students if school needs to close because of COVID-19.

He said he thinks the school has a good plan for the fall semester but doesn't have a firm grasp on the spring semester yet, given the fluid nature of virus.

"It's been an almost total rebuild of our concepts and traditions to become more flexible with the purpose of getting students and faculty back on campus in a safe manner," Moulton said.

He also formed a return-to-school advisory committee.

Moulton said he thinks everyone in the education field in the Sumter community is taking the virus seriously and that for educators it's been almost like taking on an additional job.

"We're all trying to provide, within our best capabilities, the very best learning environment for the children in Sumter," he said. "Everybody's job has changed because of this, regardless of your field. Educators, especially, have a large weight to bear for the health of the kids and families, and we are all working overtime to get this done."