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Five things we know so far about Charleston area school plans for fall reopening

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Although little is known about what schools will look like this fall, educators say one thing is for certain: It will look very different than what it was when students and teachers left in mid-March. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Although little is known about what school will look like this fall, educators say one thing is for certain: It will look very different than what it was when students and teachers left in mid-March.

Since conditions related to COVID-19 change every day, few schools have released their formal plans for August instruction. But a handful of districts, including some in the Charleston area, have provided glimpses into what the fall semester will hold.

Here's some of this information, along with guidance released earlier this week by the S.C. Department of Education, listed as five major takeaways parents, students and educators should know about school reopening plans.

1. Some school districts are planning to offer an online-only instruction option for students.

With so many uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and with cases in the Palmetto State on the rise, not everyone will feel comfortable sending their children back to school in the fall. That’s why some South Carolina school districts, including in Charleston and Berkeley counties, say they’re planning to offer an entirely online school option for students next year.

Charleston County plans to offer a full-time virtual school for all K-12 students who wish to participate. In Berkeley County, the school district will also offer an entirely virtual option for all K-12th graders, where students will interact online with their peers and receive instruction in real time. The district will offer a self-guided virtual option exclusively for 7-12th graders.  

2. If in-person instruction resumes, classrooms and common spaces will likely look very different.

Guidance released by the state education agency suggests classroom furniture should be arranged to accommodate the recommended 6 feet of social distancing. Classrooms, conference spaces, playgrounds, hallways and cafeterias should all be assessed and rearranged to enable social distancing between students, if at all possible.

In Charleston County, Chief Operating Officer Jeff Borowy announced a possible elementary school classroom setup where four desks could be arranged in a rectangle formation with clear plastic dividers between each one. This formation could allow approximately 20-24 students to be housed in a 846-square-foot classroom.

In a traditional high school classroom, the first row of desks could be lined up against the back wall, Borowy said. All desks would be positioned 6 feet apart, with additional space at the classroom’s entrance and at the front of the room where a teacher would be. This setup would allow for around 16 students to fit inside one 718 square foot room.

There are thousands of other small details that school district leaders have had to think about changing or modifying as a result of the pandemic. Everything from water fountains to fire drills needs to be assessed and accounted for.

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Some things schools should consider, per state guidance, include adding signage and floor markers to help indicate hallway traffic flow, having students eat lunch in classrooms and limiting outside guests to the front office.

3. Each school district has the authority to make decisions for itself about what class will look like in the fall.

The S.C. Department of Education has repeatedly emphasized that individual school districts have the authority to determine what solution fits their community best. Each district’s plan will need to weigh any budgetary concerns, facility capabilities and the thoughts and concerns of local parents, students and educators. The state agency’s coronavirus task force — accelerateEd, released its final guidelines for schools to consider Monday, but there’s no mandate requiring districts to adhere to these suggestions. Instead, they’re designed to be viewed as a comprehensive list of “best practices” for school officials.

4. The ability to host in-person classes as normal will depend on the spread of the virus.

Some of the state’s top education officials, including Superintendent Molly Spearman, have repeatedly implored residents to wear masks in public and practice social distancing. That's because the future of in-person instruction depends on the amount of COVID-19 spread in an area.

School districts will use the rate of community spread in an area, whether it be low, medium or high, to determine the appropriate scheduling model for schools. Three major types of scheduling models districts across the state are considering include a full return to in-person instruction with added safety precautions, a hybrid model where students learn via both in-person and online classes, and an online-centered model, where students spend most or all of their time learning remotely.

5. Schools are struggling to best address the learning loss that happened as the result of widespread school closures.

Students across South Carolina were out of school for almost one-third of the 2019-20 academic school year. While teachers were quick to adapt to long-distance learning via hastily prepared information packets or online lessons, educators agree that this pales in comparison to in-person classroom time. As a result, some students will experience severe academic regression. The S.C. Department of Education has advised teachers to focus less on trying to cover every lesson students missed last year and more on covering the major academic standards that a student needs to continue learning. The agency will work this summer to determine what specific “essential readiness” standards teachers should hone in on with their students.

Many teachers have requested waivers from state and federally mandated standardized testing, similar to the ones that were granted for the 2019-20 school year. Those in favor of this plan say doing so for the upcoming academic year would give teachers additional time to focus on what’s most important. Spearman has said she will ask for a waiver for these assessments but said she cannot guarantee her request will be granted.

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif.

Jenna Schiferl is a Columbia native and an education reporter at The Post and Courier. Her work has been featured in Garnet & Black Magazine, South Carolina Living and Jasper Magazine.

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