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Georgetown schools keeps mask mandate in place for remainder of school year

GCSDMay4.jpg

While no vote was taken May 4 on whether or not masks would be required next school year, Georgetown County School District's medical advisory team recommended keeping mask and plexiglass rules in place for the rest of this year. The team also said, though, it would consider removing mask requirements for this year for outdoor activities like recess.

GEORGETOWN — Despite a group of parents who showed up to tell the Georgetown Country school district board to end mask mandates for the remainder of the year, the district's medical advisory team recommended May 4 keeping mask and plexiglass rules in place.

The board took no action, though the district said it would consider removing mask requirements for this year for outdoor activities, like recess, after new federal guidelines.

Alan Walters, director of the district's safety and risk management department, said the team is beginning to see if masks and plexiglass will still be necessary for students when classes start net fall.

This caution came despite several parents — and even one student, Jack Olsen — telling the board that masks negatively affect students' mental health and academic performance.

"I get bullied when I pull my mask down for a puff of air," Olsen said, adding that he has asthma.

Walters said the district's goal is to develop an adaptive plan for the safe reopening of schools that can evolve based on science and circumstances. He continually cited state and federal public health numbers and guidelines to the board as reasons why the mask mandate is being kept in place.

Georgetown County let its mask mandate expire April 30, while the city of Georgetown extended its mask mandate until July 30. 

Studies show that younger children are not only less likely to experience COVID-19 symptoms, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its plans to expand Pfizer vaccinations to children ages 12-15 as early as next week.

The board also was updated on the district's virtual program. Elementary and middle school student applications did not meet the required minimum enrollment numbers needed to make the program viable for them, so virtual learning will not be offered to elementary and middle school students next year.

Enough high schoolers, though, applied for the program, and Genia Smith, the district's executive director for innovations and special programs, said administrators will survey those qualified students to form the best plan for how the virtual program will work for them.

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The 2021-22 virtual academy was only available via application to students whose academics and attendance records from this school year qualify.

Smith said the district looked for high levels of academic performance and attendance in approved virtual academy students to ensure that those students will be set up to succeed, not fail.

“Our students that are in the program, if you compare them to those that are face to face, the data shows that they’re struggling in regards to reading,” Smith said.

While Smith said this years' virtual program was a success, it also was clear that there was significant learning loss across grade levels. With this loss in mind, the district put minimum and maximum enrollment capacities on 2021-22 virtual students to balance its families safety concerns with evidence that students succeed more when they are learning in-person.

At least 15 elementary students in each grade needed to be approved for the program to be viable, though it was capped at 30 students per grade. For middle schoolers, minimum enrollment was 20 per grade and maximum enrollment was 35 per grade.

High school applications, though, were done as a whole, not by individual grade. Minimum enrollment for high schoolers was 20 ninth to 12th grade students and the cap was 35.

High schoolers only committed to the virtual program for a semester, meaning if high schoolers wanted, they could be virtual for the fall semester, then in-person for spring.

Superintendent Keith Price also announced the district will receive $26.3 million in federal ESSER III funds. These funds are part of the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March 2021, and Price said this funding would generally be used to address learning loss from COVID-19. More discussion on specific uses for the funds will come at later board meetings.

Price also announced Marc Frechette as the district's new director of student information services and data quality. Frechette will work with PowerSchool, the district's communication and information portal for students, teachers and parents.

Follow Demi Lawrence on Twitter @DemiNLawrence.

Demi Lawrence reports on Georgetown County for The Post and Courier. She graduated from Ball State University in 2020, and previously was an intern at The Herald Bulletin in Anderson, Indiana and Indianapolis Monthly.

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