South Carolina school districts are working against the clock to finalize plans for reopening school this fall amid the global pandemic.
Rapidly changing COVID-19 conditions have caused many districts to delay announcing any official decisions until the last possible minute, sparking frustration from some educators and parents desperate for answers.
Recent requirements from the state's education agency and controversial statements from the governor haven't made the process any easier, forcing school districts to readjust their plans and present parents with options before time runs out.
Here are some answers about school reopening plans:
Who makes the final decision on school districts’ plans for fall reopening?
State Superintendent Molly Spearman has the sole authority to approve or reject school districts' reopening plans for this fall.
Lawmakers gave her that authority in the temporary budget they passed earlier this year to keep the government operating past July 1 amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Henry McMaster has strongly urged school districts and local leaders to fully reopen this fall.
The governor does not have any real authority here, other than his ability to use his influence to urge lawmakers to intervene.
Lawmakers have a great deal of power, if they can agree on a course of action. They could theoretically pressure Spearman or individual school districts into taking some sort of action, in part because they control K-12 funding in South Carolina and can threaten to withhold money if school districts aren't doing what they want.
But that approach would be difficult to pull off given the level of division in the General Assembly already over McMaster's back-to-school plan.
Could McMaster mandate in-person instruction five days a week or use an executive order to override what the state education agency approves or rejects?
Experts say it’s highly unlikely. The pandemic has given McMaster more power than he would have otherwise, perhaps more than any other S.C. governor in generations. But he still has limits.
It’s worth noting that McMaster strongly suggested schools reopen five days a week but did not mandate it or issue an official executive order requiring it.
If he had the power to mandate schools follow his advice, it’s likely he would have done so already.
Spearman is the state’s highest official when it comes to overseeing the public school system.
As a result, it would be difficult for McMaster to successfully force his hand in the state’s educational arena.
What are the criteria Spearman is using to approve or reject plans?
Typically, district leaders work to formulate specific fall reopening plans before bringing them before the school board for a vote.
But all plans need final approval from the S.C. Department of Education and Spearman before they become official.
On July 17, just two days after McMaster called for five-day-a-week instruction, Spearman released guidance to school districts outlining the main criteria they would need to meet when submitting fall reopening plans.
The four key things she’s looking for:
A virtual option for all students: Some parents do not feel comfortable sending their children back for any form of in-person education. Under Spearman’s guidance, all school districts should have an online-only option available for those parents.
An in-person option for all students: In order to get official signoff from the state education agency, districts must include some form of in-person learning option for students next year. So-called “blended” or “hybrid” models will be considered an in-person option, according to Spearman’s guidance. Schools are encouraged to open five days a week if COVID conditions permit. It’s unlikely that a plan will be approved if it doesn’t include at least one day of in-person instruction, according to S.C. Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown.
A time frame: Districts need to include an estimated time frame of when they’ll reevaluate their plans and procedures to determine when a full-time face-to-face instruction model might be possible.
A plan for student services: Regardless of the model school districts choose to use, they’ll need to provide clear examples of how they plan to deliver high-quality lessons for all students. They’ll also need to include plans for how a “broad range of student services” will be provided, such as mental health resources or additional support for students with disabilities.
Will a plan that starts the school year with virtual instruction be rejected by the Education Department?
Ultimately, Spearman and other officials at the agency are looking for plans that include a minimum of one day of classroom instruction for students each week. It is unlikely but not impossible that Spearman will approve a plan that features an online-only start date.
For example, in one rural Midlands school district students will start virtually in mid-August as originally planned. After two weeks, students will start returning to the classroom in phases as the district moves toward eventually offering in-person instruction five days a week.
This type of plan would likely be approved, Brown said, because it quickly shifts from online to in-person learning and provides clear, specific details on how and when the district will make the switch.
“It really depends on how that transition is happening,” he said. “If it’s a wait and see, 30-day, two-month, three-month type of deal, no, that’s not going to suffice.”
When will I know what plan my school district is using?
It depends. Spearman's office said it's planning to release the first round of approved plans to the public by July 31. Some plans will take longer than others to approve, depending on the level of detail included and whether they meet all of the requirements spelled out in the July 17 memo.
Some school districts have delayed making a final decision until the last possible moment with the hope that disease activity will slow over the course of the next month. Many, including the state’s largest school district, have built multiple different options into their reopening plans that are contingent upon the level of COVID-19 spread.
Districts will need to select a specific model before the Education Department will grant them final approval, Brown said.
The major tenants of each approved plan will be posted on ed.sc.gov, along with links that redirect users to the full documents as posted on school districts' websites.