The Aiken County Board of Education voted Tuesday to phase into five-day, in-person classes over the next month, contradicting a recommendation from the Back-to-School Advisory Committee.
All Aiken County Public Schools will return to five-day, in-person instruction on Nov. 4. Elementary schools will begin four-day instruction on Oct. 12, and middle and high schools will start four-day school on Oct. 26.
So far this school year, Aiken County students who aren’t enrolled in the all-virtual Aiken Innovate have been attending school in a hybrid model: two days in class, three days of virtual learning. The school district’s plan was to open elementary schools to five-day first, with middle and high schools to follow.
The advisory committee, comprised of local parents, educators and health professionals, voted 9-3 to recommend staying in the hybrid model at the elementary level.
One of the reasons for this recommendation was that Aiken County has not met the advisory committee’s benchmark of a 5% COVID-19 positivity rate. The county still has an 11.8% positivity rate, according to a presentation by committee chair Bert Postell.
However, the committee’s decision was based on school board’s prior suggestion of opening elementary schools to five-day instruction in mid-October, not other options like four-day instruction, said Postell.
“Some of the committee believe a four-day week option would serve the need to allow a slower transition and allow an opportunity for deeper cleaning,” according to the advisory committee’s presentation.
Keith Liner, school board chair, proposed the transition to four, then five-day instruction shortly after Postell concluded the advisory committee’s presentation.
“I think the benchmark that they were looking at – the 5% – you heard a couple of the board members express some concern that we may never get to that benchmark,” Liner said after the meeting.
Fellow board member Barry Moulton voiced a similar opinion prior to the vote.
“If we don’t move forward, I’m not sure we’ll ever move forward,” Moulton said. “At the same time, do I want any children or staff getting sick? Absolutely not.”
Another reason for going against the advisory committee’s recommendation was that more students have been quarantined because of exposure to the virus outside of school versus inside of school, Liner said.
According to data from the advisory committee, 1,014 students and employees have been quarantined during this school year. Overall, about 55% of them were exposed outside of school.
High schools and early learning are the exceptions. More high school students and employees, as well as early learning students, have been exposed inside the schools than outside, according to the quarantine data.
“Maybe they (students) are safer inside our schools than maybe in other places,” Liner said after the meeting.
Board member Cameron Nuessle, likewise, suggested school would be a more controlled environment than other places where students risk exposure to the virus.
The move to transition out of the hybrid model was opposed by two school board members: Nuessle and Patrice Rhinehart-Jackson.
Nuessle explained that he supported the transition, but opposed the short timeline for elementary schools’ opening.
“I think we need more than three business days to prepare the schools … so that employees don’t feel overwhelmed,” Nuessle said after the meeting.
Rhinehart-Jackson, who also voted against the motion, has not responded to requests for comment. However, during the meeting, she voiced some concerns about safety.
“I am extremely concerned,” Rhinehart-Jackson said. “…I am concerned about the children’s development when it comes to their education and how far behind they’re getting. I am also concerned if we go to a four-day, possibly a five-day model, what sanitation is going to look like.”
Rhinehart-Jackson said she is concerned about how increased sanitation needs will impact custodial staff. She also voiced concern about safety on buses, where social distancing will become more difficult.
Board member John Bradley supported moving out of the hybrid model, but acknowledged the potential risks that lie ahead.
“I really struggle with the fact that I don’t want to make anybody’s child sick. I’ve been through that. I know what it’s like to have a sick child,” Bradley said. “... But we’ve got to try to find a balance, and I think the only way we’re going to do that is to experiment. We’re just going to have to run a risk and hope that it pays off for us.”
Bradley said he is worried that students will fall behind if they remain in the hybrid model.
Board member Dwight Smith called for teachers, parents and students to follow guidelines and protect themselves against the virus.
“I wish we could keep the disease out of our schools totally, but we can’t,” Smith said. “…You are your best protection by using your precautions.”
Liner echoed Smith’s advice.
“We’re relying on everyone to be good stewards of their own health. If your child is sick, don’t send them to school. Try to tell them to wash their hands often, wear their masks, sneeze into their elbow. Those are all things we can control ourselves that will help everyone in the population,” Liner said after the meeting.
Multiple board members, including Bradley and Moulton, noted that the school district will need to return to more restrictive measures if the virus spreads.