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Returning to hybrid: The Aiken County school board's hours-long discussion with the advisory committee

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The four-hour Aiken County Board of Education meeting Tuesday was one marked by audience interjections, impassioned statements and board motions created, amended and rescinded.

Board members ultimately voted to return elementary students to a four-day, full-capacity schedule with Fridays off starting the week after Thanksgiving and lasting until the end of the fall semester.

Middle and high school students will return from Thanksgiving break attending school under a hybrid model, where two separate cohorts will attend school two days per week until the end of the semester.

The Back-to-School Advisory Committee's recommendation differed from the school board's final decision. The committee proposed a schedule with remote learning from Nov. 23 to Dec. 4, hybrid learning from Dec. 7 to Dec. 18 and remote learning from Jan. 4 to Jan. 8 at all school levels.

A canceled meeting

Before voting to have a discussion with the Back-to-School Advisory Committee that night, school board members proposed holding a special called meeting at various later dates and times to make a final decision on the committee's recommendation, including Wednesday roughly 24 hours later, Thursday, Friday and Monday.

Board members talked about discussing the recommendation with committee members present.

One advisory committee member interjected and said some of the group wouldn't be able to make it to the proposed Thursday meeting.

"We need to talk about it whether y'all are here or not," board member John Bradley said.

Multiple advisory committee members spoke up. "Why don't y'all listen to us?" asked one committee member.

The school board approved, with a vote of 7-1, a special called meeting for Thursday. Cameron Nuessle opposed the vote, and Jason Crane was absent from the meeting.

Bradley said the board appreciates the work the committee does and listens to its recommendations, but that the board makes its own decisions.

"I was the person who suggested that we have an advisory committee to review data and make a recommendation to the board," Bradley said. "Two key words: advisory and recommendation. We did not empower the committee to make decisions. That is the board's responsibility, and I think it would be a dereliction of duty to shovel that off on anybody else."

Several minutes later, board member Patrice Rhinehart-Jackson made an apology to students, teachers, parents, grandparents, volunteers and substitute teachers district-wide.

Rhinehart-Jackson said the school board needed to refocus.

"And with that being said, I'm also going to apologize because, in good heart, within my heart and my mind, I should not have just voted for the meeting on Thursday, and I'm going to tell you why," Rhinehart-Jackson said. "Because we are here now. This is something that takes priority, and needs to be settled as soon as it is possibly able. And if it takes us all night because that is our job and that's what we got elected to do, then we need to sit here and get it done."

The school board unanimously approved Rhinehart-Jackson's motion to retract the Thursday meeting.

Instead, the board members made final scheduling decisions that night with several committee members present for active discussion – a first for the Aiken County Board of Education meetings.

The discussion

Chairman Dwight Smith invited members of the Back-to-School Advisory Committee to gather in the front of the room and discuss their recommendation.

Multiple board members voiced concern that hybrid and virtual learning may not be as effective as full-time, in-person instruction.

"We have A students dropping down to D's and F's on their grades," Smith said. "I've got teachers texting me tonight saying, 'I can't teach a first grader to read if he's not in my class.'"

Michelle Stevens, a parent on the advisory committee, explained that she also prefers that her children learn in schools face-to-face five days a week.

However, Stevens said she felt more comfortable with the committee's recommendation than she has with past recommendations.

"The recommendation this week truly was the first time we compromised," Stevens said. "... This is the first time we came together and everyone, I feel like, left the meeting last night feeling, maybe not 100%, but equally OK with the recommendation."

Bradley said he opposed the recommendation because families in poverty and working families may have trouble arranging childcare, particularly as schedules shift from all-virtual to hybrid and back.

"The thing that motivates me to push to keep children is schools is that, I firmly believe ... the only way we can effectively educate children, given our current state of curriculum development and technology, is in a face-to-face classroom five days a week," Bradley said.

Langley-Bath-Clearwater Middle School teacher Rosalyn Greene said teachers have been working hard to improve their curriculum under the hybrid model.

Greene said her classroom has been sparse lately due to the high number of quarantined students.

"My students are scared," Greene said.

Lisa Fallaw, principal of East Aiken School of the Arts, explained that there is no social distancing in her school while students attend full-capacity classes. She also said some students are having trouble seeing through the district-provided desk dividers.

New school board member Patricia Hanks expressed concern for the academic success of students in her district. Hanks represents the North Augusta area.

"There are students in my district where the achievement gap has been horrible. That was before COVID. So after COVID, I can pretty much guarantee you it's going to be much worse than it was," Hanks said.

Bradley suggested moving into hybrid or virtual on a school-by-school basis, based on the number of cases and quarantines at individual schools. However, Fallaw said the advisory committee decided district-wide scheduling changes would result in more equality for students at different schools.

Smith said he doesn't think the district should be as worried about equality between schools. Instead, he said the district should instruct as many students at school as possible.

Ultimately, however, the school board went with the schedule proposed by Rhinehart-Jackson, which has students attending hybrid school at the middle and high level – rather than all-virtual – after Thanksgiving Break, and elementary students attending four-day.

Superintendent King Laurence said that although he prefers five-day school, he liked both Rhinehart-Jackson's schedule and the advisory committee's recommendation.

Public participation

Four people signed up for the public participation session at the beginning of the meeting, and all of them voiced concern about safety amid COVID-19.

Local father Samuel Leverette said his son, a student at Leavelle McCampbell Middle School, recently made point guard on the school's basketball team. However, after a classmate tested positive for the virus, Leverette's son had to quarantine.

Leverette said his son is devastated that he can't go to his first basketball game. The father said the issue could have been avoided if the schools had maintained physical distancing between students, which became impossible due to full-capacity classes.

Aiken Innovate teacher Scott Ayers criticized board members who chose to go against the Back-to-School Advisory Committee's recommendation on Oct. 6, when the board voted to return to five-day school despite the committee's recommendation to stay in the hybrid model.

Ayers said a colleague told him that some seventh grade students have not been eating lunch, too afraid to take their masks off around other students.

Bus driver Seve Adigun voiced concern about safety in school buses amid COVID-19. He said students have been riding the bus back home after being told by their schools to quarantine.

Adigun requested the board consider, at least, returning to the red/blue hybrid model, which would reduce the number of students riding the bus at once.

Dr. John Tiffany, local pediatrician and member of the advisory committee, addressed the board during public participation as well.

"I think we're at the tipping point right now. If you look at the whole public health aspect of this, COVID is going to get worse," Tiffany said. "... Right now, with the way the students are in school, they cannot social distance. This virus loves people close to each other. And unfortunately, unless you're wearing an N-95, a regular cloth mask does not stop the spread of this virus."

In a last-second signup, local mother Jana Jackson joined the public participation session. She spoke against changing students' schedules again after having moved from hybrid to four-day and five-day.

"I have two sons. Aiken High. They're both athletes, they're both very good students ... There's been no consistency. It's very hard for me, as an adult, and other friends of mine to cope during COVID. We are doing our children a disservice by changing our minds on how we're going to instruct them on a consistent basis," Jackson said.

Later during the meeting, Jackson announced that, as she was likely to be kicked out anyway, she would make one final statement as she walked toward the door and left the building.

"How about the lack of training and tons of substitutes that we should have known about ahead of this time and had backed up, ready to take care of our teachers ... Go to the community and ask for help. I volunteer for free," Jackson said, while Chairman Smith said, "Thank you, ma'am," repeatedly.

What's next

At a date to be determined, the school board will hold a special called meeting about next semester's guidelines and the status of athletics in the school district.

Rhinehart-Jackson advocated for the cancellation of athletic events, and pediatrician Dr. John Tiffany told board members that contact sports will lead to the spread of the coronavirus.

For board meeting livestreams updates on upcoming meeting dates, visit acpsd.net.

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