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With mask mandate banned, SC districts risk losing funding if more than 5% of students are learning virtually

Published: Aug. 10, 2021 at 9:01 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - If the rise in COVID-19 cases in South Carolina is making a family reconsider sending their child back to in-person learning, they may find it harder than last year to make the switch. Virtual learning options are limited for students who want to learn online with teachers from their districts.

“I think you now also see an increase in families now because of the uncertainty of how school will start and the increase in the cases especially among children and young people. So there’s an interest from those parents of, ‘what are my options?’” said SC Deputy Superintendent of College and Career Readiness Dr. David Mathis.

According to the DHEC COVID-19 dashboard, as of Tuesday, there are 85 cases of COVID-19 associated with SC schools out of the roughly one million students, faculty, and staff in K-12 schools.

“The numbers are already showing up to be quite high and the teachers and students are already being quarantined as directed by DHEC,” State Superintendent Molly Spearman said Tuesday.

Earlier this year, the state Legislature put a limit on how many students can enroll in virtual learning.

If a district has more than five percent of students enrolled in their virtual program, they risk losing about 50 percent of their per-student state funding.

But the superintendent for Fairfield County schools is refusing to turn anyone away from learning virtually if that’s the right thing for them

“I couldn’t in all conscience tell our families who I know could benefit from the virtual option that we won’t provide it because it’s over the 5 percent gap,” Fairfield County Superintendent Dr. J.R. Green said.

For students who want to learn virtually and are willing to enroll in a new school, South Carolina has an online virtual learning program and online charter schools.

According to Department of Education leaders who oversee virtual learning options, district and statewide online learning programs will be better than last year.

“I think it will be 100% better this year. Last year we pivoted very quickly and we built the airplane as we flew, so to speak, and we learned a lot of how to deliver quality virtual instructions,” Dr. Mathis said. “We’ve got learning management systems, we have a new learning object repository, there are a whole lot of resources we didn’t have last year that our teachers will have access to this year.”

This restriction on virtual learning comes as schools are not allowed to mandate masks because of another temporary law passed by the General Assembly in the state budget.

“If it were up to me we would mandate masks, that’s a vital tool in our toolbelt,” said Dr. Green.

Superintendent Spearman continued to recommend students and staff mask up at school and all who are eligible get the vaccine.

“Football practice is starting, cheerleading practice is starting, band camp is starting so we are already seeing the spread,” she said.

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