GEORGETOWN COUNTY — Georgetown County School District voted 8-1 to move middle and high school students from Hybrid to Hybrid Plus learning starting March 1, while elementary students will shift from Hybrid Plus to Prime starting March 1 and middle and high school students from Hybrid Plus to Prime March 8.
Hybrid Plus is four days of in-person instruction, while Prime is a return to full-time, in-person teaching.
The board made this decision just a month after it approved elementary students for Hybrid Plus learning at the Feb. 12 board meeting.
Several parents and a GCSD teacher spoke for nearly an hour before the meeting, some begging the board to move high schoolers to Hybrid Plus and Prime learning and others asking the board to reconsider. Parents cited mental health concerns and a need for their children to have face-to-face interactions, while Carvers Bay High School English teacher Eric Haas asked the district to ensure teachers are fully vaccinated before shifting middle and high school students to Hybrid Plus.
"I've yet to speak with a teacher that does not want students back in their classrooms and read the day when it is safe," Haas said. "However, given the current situation with the pandemic, many of us feel that we are still at risk at the middle and high school students return to the classroom full time."
Alan Walters, GCSD executive director for safety and risk management, said that the district is prepared to vaccinate all teachers, but is waiting on the state government for clearance.
Parent Megan Stump said that the district is failing its students by not allowing them to return to full-time, in-person learning, and that she knows many students do not have parents who are able to keep them accountable for virtual learning.
"I am pleading with you to be a voice for every student in this community and vote to give these kids the option to go back to school full time immediately," Stump said. "Hybrid is not good enough. Hybrid plus is not good enough. We need to have them in school five days a week for consistency and learning and a stable safe environment."
Walters presented information to the board and cited the CDC in January when it found little COVID-19 transmission in schools when necessary measures such as masks, social distancing and regular sanitization were implemented.
Walters also said that Georgetown County, as of Feb. 10, had the lowest COVID-19 case incidence rate in the state, and cited more recent CDC information that said schools could fully reopen so long as necessary measures such as the ones previously stated were in place.
The district expanded its medical advisory board, Walters said, to include community based pediatricians and doctors from St. James, and Walter said that when the panel met last week, the doctors did not see any evidence of high transmission in schools. Walters also said the doctors were concerned about issues such as academic lag, mental health and substance abuse in students if they continue to learn virtually.
"They've said they've seen a very large increase in the number of people coming into their offices ... with (those issues)," Walters said.
The board was presented with class size information that showed that all but two of the middle and high schools would have more than the recommended 24 students in them were they to shift to Hybrid Plus learning without adjustments.
These issues, which are up to the individual schools to solve, will be mitigated by reassigning student schedules, reassigning teacher modality, utilizing larger spaces as classrooms such as media centers and auditoriums, and activating overflow rooms for live streaming in the case that a classroom unexpectedly fills past the point where students are able to socially distance to the extent possible.
The final option will be done on a case-by-case basis, but several board members shared concern over this, especially over Georgetown County Middle School having 41 classes with more than 24 students and Waccamaw Middle School having 29 classes.
"The sooner the better for me to see children back in school five days a week, I agree wholeheartedly, but I do think our guidance counselors and our principals are going to have to make some adjustments with those numbers and where they're going," said board member Patti Hammel.
Superintendent Keith Price said this decision is not one that has been taken lightly, and that no matter what decision was made, that it would not fully eliminate the fears and anxieties of students, teachers and parents alike. Price also said that the teachers deserve praise at every opportunity for their dedication to their students and their adaptability during these times.
Several board members went back and forth explaining their concerns, with Pat DeLeone saying the district could not wait until all teachers are vaccinated to return students to classrooms more often and Bill Gaskins saying the longer the district pushes off Prime learning, the harder it will be for students and teachers to adjust.
"Listening to all we have heard from the science and the medical field, I really believe we need to get our kids back in school five days a week," Gaskins said. "There's mental health, emotional, I know it's gonna be tough to do that, but I think the longer we push that off, I think it's gonna get harder."
Middle and high school students can request to change their learning models, whether it be from remote learning to Hybrid Plus, or to opt out of Hybrid Plus and move to remote learning, through Feb. 22.