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Aiken County will return to school via hybrid model of in-person, virtual learning

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School will look quite different from what students, parents and faculty are used to after the Aiken County School Board voted to accept a plan put forth by a local task force for implementing social distancing protocols in schools this fall.

The school district voted to provide two options for parents this fall: Aiken Innovate, a virtual learning program, or a transition to traditional education option, which is a hybrid model of learning that will include a mixture of traditional instruction and remote learning at a 50% capacity of students in schools at at time.

The transition to traditional education contain any one of three models of learning.

Those models are remote learning (0% occupancy in schools), traditional learning (100% occupancy) and the hybrid model (50% occupancy). Any change in the models used in schools will depend on how severe the spread of COVID-19 is in South Carolina and could change at any given time.   

The hybrid model of learning will include a mixture of traditional instruction and remote learning. In schools, 50% of students will be present in classrooms Mondays and Tuesdays, with the remaining 50% in classrooms Wednesdays and Thursdays. This would reserve a total of three days for remote learning for students, including Fridays. 

Fridays will be used as office hours, planning and professional development for teachers.

The motion passed 8-1, with board member Patrice Rhinehart-Jackson dissenting.

Board members who voted in approval were Keith Liner, Jason Crane, John Bradley, Sandra Shealey, Brian Silas, Cameron Nuessle, Dwight Smith, and Barry Moulton.

The school district's Back to School Task Force proposed new plans for a safe return to school after weeks of deliberating flexible guidelines put forth by state leaders, advice from medical professionals and health agencies, and collecting feedback from parents and teachers through methods such as surveys.

Many of the recommendations were based on guidelines from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the CDC, according to Dr. Phyllis Gamble, leader of the district's local coronavirus education task force.

King Laurence, superintendent of Aiken County schools, said the deadline to commit to Aiken Innovate for parents who want to stick to only virtual learning is July 20. 

Laurence personally recommended use of the hybrid model of learning for middle and high school students before the school board vote was taken. He also recommended that, three weeks after the start of school (Sept. 8), elementary students be allowed to return to classrooms five days a week, but said traditional learning would be less likely for middle and high school students at that time due to the frequency at which such students usually need to change classrooms for instruction and the inability to follow distancing guidelines. 

Elementary students would be required to remain in their classrooms throughout the day in this scenario, Laurence said. They would remain in their class groups to allow for contact tracing and limit potential spread of coronavirus in schools. 

Laurence confirmed that social distancing – usually recommended at a minimum of 6 feet – will not be possible in the traditional learning setting if elementary schools return to class five days a week.

Gamble said one of the primary challenges to returning to traditional learning would be social distancing on buses – which requires buses be filled to less than 50% capacity. A return to this model would be dependent on the severity of spread of disease at the time, Gamble said, and students would still be required to adhere to social distancing and would not share school materials.

The hybrid model will also utilize:

• assigned seating

• social distancing

• use face shield or face masks

• New material in remote learning rather than just review of previous material 

School board member Jason Crane said lack of internet access in his district was a "heavy concern" for virtual schooling, a sentiment echoed by board member Sandra Shealey. 

Task force members said the district's inventory of devices, including repurposed iPads, would be loaned to students in need. The possibility of providing WiFi hotspots is also being pursued.

A "bank" of resources is being created for teachers to assist them with virtual learning, one task force member said. These resources, which the task force is encouraging teachers to contribute to, includes educational resources such as videos and power points.

For parents who choose virtual learning, students will remain enrolled in their home base school, according to the task force. These students will be assigned a full-time virtual teacher through Aiken Innovate, but will still qualify for extra-curricular activities and lunch pickup at their school.

The task force will also create an advisory committee comprised of health professionals to monitor local at state data.

Temperature screening for all staff and students will be done on a daily basis in schools, per task force recommendations. Students or staff who have a fever of 100 degrees or higher will be removed from their school group and isolated until they can leave the campus.

If staff or students exhibit symptoms, they must either provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test, documentation from a medical provider that their symptoms were from other causes, or meet the isolation criteria in place for a positive test before returning to school.

If an employee or student tests positive, they must wait a minimum of 10 school days before symptoms started, have three days of no fever without use of medication and exhibit an overall improvement of symptoms before they can return to school. 

Students who have a household member who tests positive should also quarantine for 14 days after their household member is cleared from isolation. 

Students and staff will not be required to take a COVID-19 test before the start of school. If a student tests positive for COVID-19, contact tracing will be done and footage can be reviewed from school buses to determine whether social distancing was maintained while the student was symptomatic.

If social distancing was not maintained, the district would have to look at the possibility of requesting the entire cohort in an infected child's class be quarantined, according to the task force. 

Public comments

People spoke both in favor of distance learning and in opposition to it during the public comment period of the school board meeting. 

Carina McGee, an Aiken High School teacher and member of B2Y, was in favor of schools not resuming in-person classes.

"I would be the first person through the door if it was safe to teach this year," McGee said. "…But the fact is that, right now, if they enter a school building, they would be at risk." 

McGee said that, while children may be less likely to catch the disease and die from it, "less likely doesn't mean impossible," especially in schools with windows that won't open and recycled air in their air conditioning systems.

McGee, who said she suffers from chronic respiratory issues and a heart condition, said she will be writing her will if in-person classes resume.

"Will my death or the death of one of my students be worth it?" McGee asked.

Aiken resident Ben Harm, a father of two young children, said he understood traditional schooling would carry health risks, but was more concerned about their mental health and education suffering by not being in the classroom.

"School does a lot more than just reading or math or social studies … it educates kids in life," he said.

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