COLUMBIA — The few South Carolina school districts that don't already provide full weeks of in-classroom learning would have to do so by April 26 under legislation passed by the House.
The measure approved 106-7 April 14 would also mandate that all districts offer five days weekly in person next school year.
The amended bill no longer prohibits administrators from assigning teachers to educate students both in the classroom and online simultaneously. The version passed by the Senate two weeks ago allowed such double-duty in 2021-22 only in “extreme and unavoidable circumstances” and required paying teachers extra when that happens.
The House stripped out that section altogether, concerning teachers who say the split model is overwhelming them and shortchanging students. And without a legislative ban, many teachers expect they'll be required to keep dividing their time, as districts statewide have already indicated they plan to continue offering students an all-virtual option.
House leaders insist the removal was over technical problems with the wording, not the ban itself, and they hope to work out a compromise with senators that better defines what "dual modality" means and how teachers should be compensated.
"There seems to be a lack of clarity as to the differences in simultaneous, dual modality and streaming (lessons). We’ll work to get that clarified," said Rep. Raye Felder, chairwoman of the House panel on K-12 education, adding she's confident it will be worked out ahead of the coming school year.
"We just want to make sure we do it right," the Fort Mill Republican said.
A perfunctory vote in the House on April 15 will return the bill to the Senate, which could either agree with the changes or send the measure to a panel of legislators to find a compromise between the chambers' version.
That panel could agree on what administrators can and can't ask teachers to do without paying them more. Otherwise, Felder says the specifics will be worked out in separate legislation.
But leaving that protection to chance gives teachers heartburn.
"Of course, I'm fearful," Patrick Kelly, spokesman for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, said about the section's removal. "In the middle of a teaching-shortage crisis, we should be listening to the people doing the work every day."
Teachers in dual roles recognize the students in their classroom fare better than those online, and that makes sense "as someone will always be shortchanged if your attention is divided," he said. The dual-duty "model is driving teachers out of the profession and to the detriment of students" at a time they need the most individual attention possible.
Several Democrats asked to delay a vote to better define the dual-duty ban before sending the measure back to the Senate. But that idea was rejected.
"Time is of the essence. April 26 is right around the corner," Felder said. "I do not want to hold up the start date."
It's already past the April 12 deadline in the Senate's version of the bill.
Only two districts haven't already set a full return by the House's deadline: Greenville and Colleton counties.
As of the April 14 vote, 92 percent of the state's 1,261 K-12 public schools offered a full return to the classroom, while 96 schools provide a weekly mix of in-person and virtual learning, and one school is operating fully online, according to the state Department of Education.
Broken down by district, all schools in 72 of the state's 79 school districts already provide a full-week option.
Four others — Florence 3 in Lake City, Lexington 1, and Orangeburg and Sumter counties — plan to offer all grades a full return April 19. Tiny, rural Hampton 2 (Estill) plans to transition to a full return April 26, the House's required date.
Colleton County has set May 3 as its full-return date.
And Greenville County, where only high schoolers don't have the five-day option, fully intends to comply with the legislation, said spokesman Tim Waller.
Currently, high schoolers in the state's largest district can be in the classroom either three days or four days weekly, depending on the week. Without the bill, the county's high schools would likely continue to operate that way for the last month of the school year.
"We don’t have anything against going back 100 percent," Waller said. "We were exploring every possibility under the sun to see how we could do this and maintain social distancing."
He contends they can't in high schools.
Regardless, with the bill expected to become law, high school desks will be moved around to comply. Beginning at 4 p.m. April 15, the plastic barriers that separate four students per table will come down. The tables will be removed, and traditional desks will be returned to high school classrooms, spaced 3 feet apart, Waller said.