GEORGETOWN COUNTY — As pressure mounts from the Georgetown County School District's board and vocal parents, GCSD Superintendent Keith Price said he would support a proposal to the school board for middle and high school students to shift to Hybrid Plus learning, so long as the schools are able to have five key health mitigation strategies in place.
Those five key mitigation strategies are: requiring masks at all times, social distancing “to the extent possible,” hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and disinfection, and contact tracing.
The discussion with the board is set for Feb. 16 — the next school board meeting — and comes after elementary school students have already shifted to Hybrid Plus learning on Feb. 1, a modem of learning where students are in-person learning four days a week.
Previously, elementary students were in hybrid learning — where students are in-person learning two days a week, the system still employed at middle and high schools. The district started the academic year off remotely before shifting to in-person learning for it's hybrid-to-prime program.
In an exclusive 1-on-1 with Price, here is how the school year has unfolded through his eyes:
First semester to now
When Price came into the superintendent role on July 1, 2020, he said he and the district immediately put together a local task force through a state-recommended group called AccelerateED to plan for how to safely reopen schools for the first semester. From that local task force, Price said the district created its own group made up of district level administrators, school level personnel, parents and community members to specifically look at what reopening strategies would be safest and most effective for students.
This group followed recommendations from AccelerateED, and used the South Carolina State Department of Health and Environmental Control’s weekly reports that broke down the community spread into three categories.
“There's one that talks about the number of cases per 100,000 people in your county, there's another one that's the trend and the incidence rate… and then the number of the percent positive of tests,” Price said. “So it takes those three indicators and it gives each one a rating for grading high, medium and low.”
From these three categories, a plan was born: If the county was at high risk for COVID-19 spread, students would be learning fully remote; if the county was at medium risk, students would be learning remote three days a week and in-person two days a week in two separate groups, called hybrid learning; and if the county was at low risk, students would be learning in-person five days a week, called prime learning.
To start off the first semester, GCSD announced that students would begin with fully remote because of the spike in cases the district had seen. After the first week of classes, Price said the numbers had begun to drop, and in response, the district announced students at all schools would be learning with the hybrid model starting at the third week of classes. This hybrid model stayed for the remainder of the first semester, despite numbers in the county beginning to rise significantly around Thanksgiving and through the rest of 2020.
Price said within the schools were steady, and therefore didn't dictate a change in plans.
“We did have to (revert back to fully remote learning) with a couple of schools, due to staffing challenges where we had so many staff members that had to quarantine that we couldn't operate the schools effectively, so we had to put them back in an all-virtual setting for a period of time, but it didn't impact the entire school district,” Price said.
In anticipation of large gatherings over the holidays causing more cases county-wide, the district announced it would start its second semester learning fully remote. The district hoped the cases would go down so that students could go back to hybrid learning, but they never did — COVID-19 cases climbed not only across the county, but the entire state, Price said.
With this in mind, and after advice from medical partners such as Tidelands Health and St. James Wellness and Health, the district kept students learning virtually for the first three weeks of the semester.
Getting more students in classrooms more often
South Carolina State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman released a letter in late September encouraging individual school districts to start brainstorming ways to bring the most in-need students back into classrooms more often first — meaning those students where English is a second language, students with special needs, students with poor internet connectivity, homeless or foster students and finally, elementary school students.
Spearman cited studies from places such as Duke University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill that said as long as key mitigation strategies are in place, elementary students are safe to return to in-person classes.
GCSD looked to updated guidelines put forth by DHEC which stated that if plexiglass installed in classrooms meets a certain dimension, that students can safely distance 3 feet apart, instead of 6 feet the CDC recommends.
“If you're 3 feet apart with a plexiglas barrier, and someone near you is positive, when we do close contact tracing, if you're 3 feet or more and you got a plexiglas barrier, then you're not considered a close contact,” Price explained.
According to a DHEC statement in October, plexiglass is considered appropriately sized and utilized if it surrounds three sides — the front and two sides — of the edges of the student’s desk, extends at least a foot above each child’s head when seated and is at least a foot beyond the end of the desk on either side.
During the first semester, Price said the district was able to get most of the in-need student groups back into the classrooms more often, but because the elementary school students were the largest population in this designation, the district was not able to get them back into schools during the first semester.
Therefore, Price said he and the district used winter break and the early weeks of second semester working toward that, and finally on Feb. 1, elementary students were sent back to schools in the Hybrid Plus model.
“The day after (the board) voted on that, the CDC, The Journal of American Medicine and MUSC released more research that said it's not just for the elementary age group students, it's for all students that we're not seeing schools as super spreaders, that if you have these key mitigation strategies in place, then you're not going to be exposing people to more risk by having students attend school in person,” Price said.
With these studies in mind, as well as growing concern for students getting back into classrooms among teachers, students, board members and more, Price announced at a school board meeting Feb. 2 that the board would discuss opening the middle and high schools up to Hybrid Plus learning at the next board meeting Feb. 16, and that he would support board approval of this decision it it happens.
Hybrid Plus thus far
Though elementary school students have been in Hybrid+ learning going on three weeks, Price said he has had a chance to visit some schools and speak with all principals and some teachers about how it is working. Though prior to launch there was some concern and anxiety about this change, Price said he has heard overall positive feedback about the shift in learning modems.
“What I've heard and what I've seen is that after folks have gotten through that first day, because they weren’t really sure what to expect, and as things started to settle in, we started to get really positive feedback,” Price said. “A lot of teachers that I spoke with are really, really happy to see students back in a more normal-like setting.”
Price said he recognizes that the pandemic has hit families and students in different ways, and he and the district have been trying to remain open minded and cognizant of all perspectives, anxieties and worries surrounding the issue of students learning in-person.
“I think everyone's got valid concerns, there are those who are worried about the missed quality instruction time and there are those who are concerned about the mental health capacity of many of our students and families. And all of that is important,” Price said.
Though there has been positive feedback, Price admitted there are some things the distinct did not take into consideration with bringing elementary students all back together for four days a week of in-person learning. For example, to keep students socially distant, classrooms will take turns eating in the cafeteria and eating in their rooms. Because of this, more trash is thrown into classroom trash cans because of lunch waste, and the district did not offer larger trash cans to students and teachers in classrooms.
Price said these adjustments are being handled at a district and school level as they come, but overall he thinks the elementary schools are settling in and adjusting well to the shift. The relative smoothness of this shift, though, may be different if the board decides to approve Hybrid+ learning for middle and high school students, though, Price said.
The biggest challenge the district is facing currently in relation to bringing middle and high schoolers into Hybrid Plus learning is class sizes. It is easy, Price said, to keep class sizes small in elementary schools because the types of classes offered are less diverse and complex. But in high school, students may take an algebra class, a calculus class, an honors chemistry class and more, so regulating those class sizes could prove more challenging.
To curb this, Price said the district is exploring creative strategies such as moving classrooms into auditoriums or other bigger rooms to allow for more space to social distance. If a classroom cannot fit all its students into a room while keeping them socially distant “to the extent possible,” it will ultimately be up to the individual schools to figure out a solution, though the district is available for guidance and advice, Price said.
“I feel like with all of those other strategies that we've been asked to have in place or have been recommended by the CDC, I think we can check all those boxes,” Price said. “That doesn't cure anxiety, nerves and fear, but if all of these experts and all of this research and our medical partners are saying ‘Hey if you can do these things, you should be able to bring them back safely,’ then I got to feel that we can do that because that's what we've used to make our decisions thus far, and it has served us well.”
On Feb. 12, the CDC released new guidelines stating that in-person schooling can resume safely if masks, social distancing, handwashing, regular cleaning, testing and contact tracing and other key strategies are enacted, especially for younger students. The strategies suggested by the CDC line up with the five key strategies GCSD is focusing on for their individual reopening processes.
The district bases all its decisions on information it gets from things like the district medical advisor board and a variety of local task forces, Price said. All of these groups feature professionals from places such as Tidelands Health, St. James Wellness and Health, MUSC, local medical professionals and more, and Price said the district tries to base its decisions off science rather than emotions.
“We've got lots of separate sets of eyes that are on this, all these partner groups, they're constantly looking out for if they see something that's relevant, they're sending it into us, and when we see something that's relevant we're sharing it with them,” Price said. “We've got members here in our district administration team that we meet weekly to discuss this whole idea of Hybrid Plus and what new (information) has come out within a week's time.”
The discussion of Hybrid+ for middle and high school students will happen at the Feb. 16 GCSD board meeting, though, if approved, will not be fully approved and enacted that night. Any change to learning modem, Price said, must be reapproved by the board itself before it is sent to the state department and approved by it before it is fully enacted and practiced. This process was the same for when the district shifted elementary students to Hybrid Plus, and all other adjustments as well.