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Online, in-person or something in between: Greenville's public school parents get answers next week

Greenville schools coronavirus

Greenville County Schools District rejected a settlement with the American Humanist Association. File/Anna Mitchell/Staff

Greenville County parents will likely hear what the first day of public school will look like as soon as this coming Monday.

In a wide-ranging, three hour online meeting Tuesday morning that included a summary of the school district's sanitation and safety efforts, Greenville County Schools Superintendent Burke Royster laid out his flexible back-to-school plan amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The plan, which last week gained state education department approval and was endorsed by district trustees on Tuesday, gives the district four scenarios for holding classes in the fall.

"It is our intent, based on what the board approves today, we want to announce two weeks prior to the start date what plan we will start under," Royster said. "Absent a dramatic swing -- we saw that immediately after Memorial Day and after the Fourth of July -- assuming there's not a dramatic swing, we would want to announce that to our community two weeks before the start of school."

The first day of school is Aug. 24; Royster is committing to an update on Aug. 10.

Instruction will be completely online if community spread of the disease is widespread and out of control. It will be in-person five days a week if community spread is minimal. In between are options for schools to be open one or two days a week, depending on the level of community spread. The district refers to these scenarios as Attendance Plans 0, 1, 2 and 5, and they correlate with the number of days brick-and-mortar schools would be open weekly.

Which of the four will be in play on the first day of school will depend on the contents of a weekly state report regarding community spread of COVID-19. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control issues the reports every Monday. Under Plan 5, he said, the district would not be able to maintain social distancing in classrooms. 

Given current conditions, he said the district would implement Plan 1 if schools were to open tomorrow. Under Plan 1, a 30-student class at the middle- or high-school level would drop to eight. Under Plan 2, it would drop to 15.  Smaller first-grade classes would see classes drop to five students under Plan 1 and nine students under Plan 2.

The superintendent said the district is committed this coming fall to giving families five days notice before schools change from one plan to another. He said he could envision a scenario where some schools are on a more restrictive stay-at-home plan than others, depending on outbreaks in individual buildings or regions of the county.

Royster presented dozens of slides loaded with data about disease spread research and district statistics. A study that came out of South Korea last week, he said, demonstrated that kids younger than 10 transmit the virus at about half the rate of adults while those 10 and older transmit at about the same rate as adults.

"It is possible that elementary school students could be attending school more days than our middle school and high schools students that might be in more danger of spreading the virus, correct?" trustee Debi Bush said.

"Yes," Royster said. "In fact, a good example of that is a medium spread scenario. You could see high schools on Attendance Plan 1 and elementary schools on a 2."

In any event, students will keep their teachers as schedules shift. Royster said every classroom will be allocated a gallon of hand sanitizer, and everyone in the school will have to wear a mask except Kindergarteners and first-graders. 

Social distancing has also been helped along by the 23,000 students who have opted to take all their classes online through the district's new "virtual academy," Royster said. Some schools lost up to 40% of their students. 

Nearly 600 teachers to teach online-only

Royster said the district offered a virtual academy job to any teacher who wanted one. To date, 356 of the district's roughly 5,000 teachers have shifted to virtual academy jobs at the elementary- and middle-school level. The district plans to recruit another 223.

"We gave priority to teachers based on health concerns, family concerns or childcare concerns," he said.

At high-schools where many classes are highly specialized, the outlook for teachers is more mixed. Some Advanced Placement courses, for example, have very small enrollment, Royster said. 

"There may well be some dedicated (online) teachers, but there are also teachers who might be teaching a regular, in-person class first period and a virtual class from their room at the high school second period," he said. "They may alternate that some during the day. We have a very few situations in courses that have very small enrollment where the teacher may be teaching dually during a period. Maybe teaching in-person and live-streaming."

Students will be encouraged to stay home if they feel sick, Royster said, and absences will not be counted against them so long as they keep up with their school work.

Royster said nearly a quarter of school district employees are older than 50 and a fifth are older than 60.

"These are all employees," he said. "Not just teachers but bus drivers, custodians, clerks, principals, assistant principals and district staff whoever they might be."

Employees who miss work because they have a positive COVID-19 test or have been ordered into quarantine by a doctor or the school district can use two weeks of "COVID Leave Pay."

Trustees overwhelmingly endorse plan

The prevailing view among the school district's 12 trustees was that kids need to go back to school as soon as it is safe for them and for employees to do so. Royster's plan passed 11-1. 

"I understand pediatricians are encouraging schools to open their doors or risk more developmental harm to kids. I understand that working parents, particularly mothers, are in crisis worried about having to leave work in the absence of a place to send their young children on the days they are not in school," said Taylors-area trustee Joy Grayson. "Schools also provide positive role models and mentors, meals, social connections, athletics, and mental and physical health services to our students.

"However, I do not want to be responsible for the spread of illness or death."

The sole objection to the school district's plan came from Greer-area trustee Roy Chamlee, who had asked for amendments to move the first day of school to Sept. 8 and to open all elementary schools five days a week. Both failed for lack of a second.

"The last couple of weeks it's becoming increasingly evident in statements from experts ... that children, particularly younger children, are suffering tremendously by not being in school," Chamlee said. "And I think everybody would agree to that. I think that's a fairly common sense thing."

A separate vote, authorizing the district to spend $3.3 million in federal CARES Act funding, was unanimous. The district will spend $960,000 on hand sanitizer, disposable cups for touchless water-filling stations, gloves, face shields and gowns for nurses and reusable cloth masks for kids who forget theirs or can't afford one. Another $1.1 million will pay for hardware and software for virtual instruction and real-time participation from students. And $1.2 million will pay for 4,000 student laptops.

Follow Anna B. Mitchell on Twitter at @AnnaBard2U.

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