SC school districts starting the school year virtually could be required to offer in-person option

SC school districts starting the school year virtually could be required to offer in-person option

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Some school districts that have planned to start the school year virtually could be forced to offer parents an in-person option for at least one day a week.

The South Carolina Department of Education sent a letter to superintendents on July 17, which was the original date school plans were due. That letter states in-person learning must be an option for districts’ plans to be approved.

Right now, plans already submitted by Richland One, Richland Two, Sumter, Orangeburg and Calhoun counties only include virtual options to start the school year. 

Each school plans to move to in-person learning over time, but that letter from the Department of Education states that in-person, even a hybrid or blended model, must be an option in order to be approved. 

Richland Two says they submitted their plans before this letter was released. “We are in the ninth inning of getting prepared for school, and to have that curve ball thrown at us at the very last minute would be a difficult challenge for us to pull off,” said Richland Two Superintendent Baron Davis.

Both Richland One’s and Richland Two’s plans follow DHEC and accelerateED’s recommendations that schools remain virtual when COVID-19 disease spread is high. “For me, it’s kind of hard to ignore that recommendation because I don’t understand the justification for why we would simply ignore the opinions of the individuals who we commissioned to put that report together,” said Superintendent Davis.

This new mandate from the Department of Education goes against DHEC's advice, but it also goes against the Governor Henry McMaster's request that all schools offer an option for five days of in-person instruction. Even if schools offer in-person instruction, families can still choose a virtual option. 

A statement sent Monday by the Department of Education says, “The large number of South Carolina families choosing a 100% virtual option has enabled districts to safely offer face to face instruction with added precautions, despite the high spread of COVID-19 in many communities.”

 However, this is not something districts, like Richland Two, are prepared to do. “That is conflicting information, and many school districts are not prepared on the first day to have any face to face option. The large number that has to be looked at district by district and county by county, so to take an aggregate number of people and say because a large number of parents asked for virtual than we should be able to offer face to face safely,” said Davis.

According to Richland Two, the Department of Education is asking districts to offer at least one day of in-person instruction for families. “One day is as disruptive as anything else, so it doesn’t still allow families to accomplish what they want to accomplish if work and things like that are an issue, and we are super sensitive to that as well. But if it’s just going to be one day, and we are going to be rotating a small group of students in one day a week, that’s not really achieving what we are trying to achieve. So, what’s the risk of spread if we just do that?” asked Davis.

Richland One’s plan currently includes a day for students to pick up their virtual devices, but the plan is based on a three-phase approach, and phase one does not give families an option for in-person. “Based on the memo from July 17, we feel like we met or are meeting those requirements and will move and plan accordingly until we hear otherwise,” said Richland One Superintendent Craig Witherspoon.

The Department of Education says plans are being reviewed and approved on a case by case basis. They add that no plans have been rejected, but if the requirements are not met, it will take additional discussion with the district in order for approval.

More plans are expected to be approved Wednesday.

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