‘That’s a heavy lift’: Richland One superintendent reacts to SC governor’s call to reopen schools

‘That’s a heavy lift’: Richland One superintendent reacts to SC governor’s call to reopen schools

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - When Gov. Henry McMaster recommended South Carolina public schools to be open five days a week for in-person learning with a virtual option this fall, many districts have had to change course if they want to follow his request.

For weeks, school districts have been working on their fall semester plans under the pressure of a Friday, July 17 deadline. Now, most districts only have three days to add a new set of guidelines and safety measures to their plan.

“We had planned on a virtual option, absolutely. So that piece of the plan, we are fine,” Richland One Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon said. “The five-day for students, theoretically all students, that’s a heavy lift right now. Given everything that the CDC has said, DHEC has said, in terms of community spread and what would need to be done not only for our students but our staff. That is something we really are going to have to look at to make sure our staff are in a good place, our students, and our families as we move forward.”

State Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, echoed Witherspoon’s concern and said he is worried schools are being forced to come up with plans too quickly.

“We need to take time to properly prepare to make sure these schools that teachers and staff are going into are safe,” the minority leader said.

However, Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree, R-Horry, said it would be more of a risk to keep students out of the classroom in the fall.

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“I think the long-term damage to children is greater not to have them in school than to have them in school,” Hembree said.

The chairman believes students are at risk of falling behind if virtual learning continues and, while he gives educators an “A” for their efforts to make online learning work, he said the actual results earned a “D.”

Several education leaders took issue with that statement during a Back-to-School Digital Town Hall hosted by WIS on Wednesday. Watch that by clicking or tapping here.

Hembree said he has seen national data that indicates students fell a year behind in math as a result of online learning and half a year behind in reading.

Witherspoon said his district was working on a hybrid model for the fall focused on alternating between in-person and virtual learning, rather than having a plan that gives students an opportunity to be in the classroom every weekday.

The superintendent also noted the financial strain with putting in strict social distancing measures and sanitary guidelines for students from the time they step on the bus, to the time the final bell rings.

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McMaster said the Department of Education was given $216 million through the CARES Act, which can be used towards reopening costs. However, Witherspoon questions whether that will cover all the necessary measures.

“I’m not sure that’s enough,” he said. “While $216 [million] looks like a lot of money, is a lot of money…But, as we spread that across South Carolina we are going to have to look at that real closely.”

Ultimately, Witherspoon said without putting in place every measure possible to keep classes safe, learning will suffer.

“If our teachers aren’t feeling comfortable and safe, that impacts instruction and that impacts classes, as well,” he said.

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