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“We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Those were the words from Sumter School District attorney Connie Jackson on Wednesday on whether the district’s reopening plan will be approved by the state Department of Education since it doesn’t line up with what the agency now is saying it’s requiring as far as options.
District officials first announced on July 6 that they planned to start the upcoming school year fully virtual, given high rates of COVID-19 and that Sumter is considered a “high-risk community” for the virus by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
On Monday, Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox and other district administrators presented the virtual school reopening plan to the district’s Board of Trustees. The plan stipulates after beginning the year with online instruction, the district will evaluate every 30 days to see if it can safely phase in a hybrid instruction model, which would be a combination of virtual, online and in-person instruction. The trustees, via a statement at the end of their board meeting Monday, reaffirmed their support of the superintendent’s recommendation to start the year in a virtual capacity and then move to a hybrid when it’s safe to do so based on official DHEC data.
The district also plans to hold in-person orientation-type days before the Aug. 28 virtual start date, though in-person attendance will not be mandatory.
In its decision-making process this summer, the district tracked state DHEC data and attempted to follow guidelines from a 13-person taskforce, AccelerateED, convened by State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman.
That taskforce’s guidance — considered a fluid, non-binding document that could be altered based in the virus’ activity — 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. As of this week, 45 of 46 counties, including Sumter, fall into the high virus spread category.
State Department of Education
Gov. Henry McMaster recommended last week that all public schools in the state be open this fall five days a week for face-to-face instruction as an option. During the press conference, he did not mention the state’s continued surge in new COVID-19 cases and increasing hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients.
No school officials joined McMaster at the conference.
On Wednesday, DHEC reported 1,654 new confirmed cases of the virus and 39 additional deaths, including one death of a Sumter County resident and one of a Lee County resident. There were 68 new cases reported in Sumter. Based on “limited hospital bed occupancy information” available through a new federal reporting system, which is estimated to be accurate within 10%, DHEC is reporting there are 1,607 COVID-19 patients hospitalized statewide, again a record high.
On Friday, the state Department of Education released updated written requirements to all school districts on reopening plan options, according to spokesperson Ryan Brown.
At the time, Brown said districts’ plans must include both a virtual option for all students and an in-person option for all students that would be at least one day per week in the classroom.
After Monday’s board meeting, The Sumter Item contacted Brown on Tuesday regarding the local district’s plan. Brown said the state department’s goal and preference was still for both virtual and in-person options for the start of the school year.
He did say some districts had submitted plans with creative options, such as starting Day 1 fully virtual and then “shortly thereafter” implementing an in-person, hybrid model, for example, two weeks into the school year.
Brown said that Sumter’s reopening plan of re-evaluating every 30 days whether to move to a hybrid model is not like any plan the state department has received yet that he could recall. He added he couldn’t comment on the local district’s plan because it had not been received by the agency as of Tuesday.
“The preference is an in-person and a face-to-face option on Day 1 or shortly thereafter,” Brown said. A gradual approach to a hybrid model, “where there is a very clearly defined, ‘This is what we are going to do. This is how we are setting it out,’ rather than saying we are going to wait and see in another 30 days or another nine weeks or whatever — that is obviously two very different things.”
He added the state department may go back to the Sumter district for additional information before any approval, and still things will be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.
School district attorney’s response
Given the disparities, The Sumter Item contacted the school district’s attorney, Connie Jackson, of Halligan Mahoney & Williams P.A. of Columbia, on Wednesday on who might have ultimate authority on back-to-school plans in this situation.
Jackson said the COVID-19 pandemic is “such a fluid situation,” and she doesn’t know if another regulation will be coming out soon.
She said by state statute, a local school board is given initial authority to establish its school calendars.
Jackson emphasized a “wait-and-see” approach, given all the dynamics involved currently with the pandemic.
“It’s not for us to say who has the ultimate authority,” Jackson said, “we are just going to have to see what the state department does with the plan. Hopefully, the state department will respect what’s going on in Sumter and will put safety first, but we’ll have to see.”
She added that Sumter is not the only district that has decided to start the year with a fully virtual plan. As of Wednesday, leaders with Richland School Districts One and Two in Columbia told The State newspaper their plans are to begin with online learning exclusively and then begin a hybrid model based on disease incidence rates. Last week, other districts in the state made decisions to begin the school year fully online.
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