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Aiken County schools returning to 5-day instruction next week

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Superintendent King Laurence is moving all schools in the Aiken County Public School District to the traditional five-day schedule starting March 1, according to an email sent to parents late Monday afternoon.

“We are in the third quarter of the school year, and now more than ever, our students need face-to-face instruction five days a week,” Laurence said in the email. “We have a plan in place to address any rise in staff and student cases on a school-by-school basis so that isolated increases in positive cases and quarantines will not affect the entire school district.”

According to the email, Laurence met with local stakeholders in recent weeks and talked with educational leaders from across South Carolina, collecting data from "a wide range of sources" before making the decision.

After a vote from the Aiken County Board of Education on Dec. 8, Laurence gained the authority to move individual schools to full-time, hybrid or virtual models, depending on the severity of a school's number of COVID-19 cases and quarantines. However, the board voted on Jan. 12 to keep schools hybrid for another 4.5 weeks.

Laurence may move a school to a more restrictive model, like hybrid or virtual, if 3% of students test positive for the virus or if 25% of instructional staff are quarantined, according to the tiered threshold system the board approved in December.

Schools returned to hybrid models in the fall, after a brief return to full-capacity classrooms led to a spike in quarantines in November.

Middle and high schools have since operated at half capacity, with two separate cohorts attending classes two days a week, and elementary students have been attending full-capacity classrooms for four days a week.

The Aiken County Board of Education will meet Tuesday at 6 p.m. at 1000 Brookhaven Drive. To view a livestream of the meeting, visit acpsd.net.

Parent support for 5-day learning

For some families, students' decreased face-to-face time with teachers has made for a tough year academically.

Local parent Landon Ball said his daughter was a straight-A student until this year. The sixth grade student has addressed the school board at two meetings asking for an end to the hybrid model.

Andrew McCaskill, father of a junior at Aiken High, is in favor of five-day instruction, saying that while teachers are working hard, he hears that many students are struggling.

"We need our kids back in school to receive their education. I can't teach German, precalculus or culinary II skills," McCaskill said via social media.

Amanda Lyons said her child, a fourth grader, loves school and does very well in the classroom. He attends school four days a week, with Fridays left for remote learning.

"Our school specifically has handled COVID very well, and I feel completely safe with my kiddo going to school," Lyons said via social media. "While I love having him home with me on Fridays, I would be perfectly OK with them returning to five day a week instruction."

Resistance to 5-day learning

The case against five-day instruction amid a pandemic with a nationwide death toll passing 500,000 has been argued by teachers, students and some parents at board meetings and protests over the course of this school year.

At a protest on Oct. 9, North Augusta High teacher Holly Scott noted that full-capacity classrooms mean no social distancing – a difficult situation to reckon with for people with health conditions.

“Personally, I have asthma, and it is terrifying to me,” Scott said in October. “The thing is, though, even if I didn’t have asthma, it would be terrifying, because there’s always a chance that you could die from (the coronavirus).”

School psychologist Lauren Blackwell, at the same October protest, said teachers put their lives at risk continually during the pandemic. She suggested the return to five-day could help students academically while hurting them emotionally and mentally.

“You can feel in the halls the stress, and the fear, and the terror, so I feel like not only is the school board not taking into account our physical health, they’re not taking into account our mental health," Blackwell said in October.

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