Sumter to begin school year online; District is first in S.C. to announce decision on fall term, state department says


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Due to COVID-19, Sumter School District will begin the new school year in six weeks in a virtual, online capacity, and there is still no start date for when athletics can begin.

Late Monday, the district's Board of Trustees unanimously approved Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox's recommendation to begin the upcoming school year on Aug. 17 with virtual instruction.

After the board meeting, the district released a statement that included postponing any start of athletics, including practices and workouts, until a later time.

Monday's meeting was a special-called meeting that was announced last week.

Per the agenda, board members went into executive session behind closed doors after the meeting was called to order at 6 p.m. The executive session lasted about two hours, and Monday's meeting concluded at 8:20 p.m.

In her statement released about 9:15 p.m., Martin-Knox noted the district continues to monitor the number of COVID-19 cases in South Carolina and that Sumter County is currently categorized as a "high-risk community," according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. According to her statement, the high-risk determination was based on Sumter's incidence rate and positive rate, both of which are high, and the trend in incidence rate, which is medium.

The superintendent added that based on state and county data and community feedback from recent surveys, the district's Reopening Schools Task Force is working to finalize a re-entry plan for the upcoming school year. After starting Aug. 17 in a virtual capacity, the district "will subsequently phase into a hybrid model," the statement reads.

Shelly Galloway, district executive director of communications and community engagement, said the re-entry plan's specific details will be announced when the plan is completed.

Like all schools - public and private - in the state, the Sumter moved to distance learning on March 16 for the final two-plus months of the school year with Gov. Henry McMaster's executive order on school closure. Most, including Sumter, conducted online instruction through the end of the spring semester.

In the last month, coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths have soared across the state and in many parts of the U.S., especially in the South and West, according to officially tracked data. As of Tuesday, more than 47,000 S.C. residents have tested positive for the virus, and at least 838 of them have died, according to DHEC data.

The continued spread of the virus presents "an extraordinary challenge," Martin-Knox said, that will require everyone's collective expertise to address the needs of students, families, staff and faculty and school communities.

The superintendent closed the statement by saying the safety of students and staff will always remain at the forefront of every decision.

She said the district will continue to monitor the number of COVID-19 cases in the area in conjunction with the governor's office, state Department of Education, DHEC, CDC and the South Carolina High School League.

The board's next regularly scheduled meeting is set for July 20 at 6 p.m.


As noted, the school district's Board of Trustees unanimously approved Martin-Knox's recommendation, 9-0, on Monday night.

Board Chairman the Rev. Ralph Canty spoke Tuesday and said in "these uncertain times" with COVID-19, the trustees are confident in their decision and think it's the best one for creating the appropriate learning environment moving forward.

He said trustees are trying to reach a "meaningful balance" in their decision making between learning and the health, well-being and ultimately life itself for students and staff members.


According to the state Department of Education's spokesperson, Sumter is the first district he is aware of in the state to formally make a decision on the fall semester.

Ryan Brown, chief communications officer with the Department of Education, told The Sumter Item on Tuesday that the state agency has advised all school districts to make final decisions on the format of instruction for the fall term and communicate them with the public no later than 20 days prior to the start of the school year. With mid-August generally as an earliest start date, that would give districts until late this month to make final decisions.

Brown said most districts are choosing to wait closer to the start of school to make their announcements, hoping that COVID-19 cases will go down and they can plan accordingly.

"From what I have heard talking with school districts, they are making plans for multiple scenarios and waiting as long as possible in order to make final decisions," he said. "Most are trying to have it in-person [instruction], but certainly the conditions that we are operating under right now are not ideal for that."