COLUMBIA — High school students forced into homeschooling by statewide coronavirus closures began signing up Wednesday for courses through South Carolina's free, online program, which is giving priority to seniors who need the credits to graduate.
While the state is lifting caps for VirtualSC classes that start Monday, if interest exceeds what teachers can handle, seniors get first dibs. What that limit will be is unclear, according to the state Department of Education.
All seniors have until May 15 to complete coursework needed to earn a diploma. Teachers then have a week to turn in their students' grades "so we can print diplomas and have you graduate so you can go on with your life as you move into college or into a career," state Superintendent Molly Spearman said.
VirtualSC, which started as a pilot program in 2006, has grown in popularity since but has had to turn away nearly 11,000 students in the last three years due to budget limitations. Almost 46,000 students took at least one course through the program last school year. The agency's budget request for the upcoming fiscal year asked legislators for an additional $2.6 million to hire more teachers.
Last week, Gov. Henry McMaster extended school closures through April 30, a month later than he initially ordered, in an effort to combat the rising cases of COVID-19 throughout the state. Classes are supposed to end for students between May 27 and June 8, depending on the school district.
Asked whether she expected students to be able to return to school at all this year, Spearman said she's "praying for a miracle."
"Maybe a miracle will happen and we won’t have to close schools any longer," she said, adding that officials will re-evaluate in mid-April.
Under guidelines distributed to district administrators this week, students will receive a single semester grade, rather than two separate grades for the school year's third and fourth quarters. And they will be graded on the traditional A through F scale, unlike other states that moved to a pass-or-fail score amid the closures.
"I hope it gives some level of comfort and will encourage our students they do need to work very hard. Work they’ve been asked to do will be graded," Spearman said, noting her office has been inundated by questions about graduation and grading.
But she reiterated that educators will be understanding.
"I say to parents again, enjoy this time, there’s a lot students can learn just by you doing special things with them," she said. "We’re in a partnership. We want you to assist your students as best you can so they can get their work in."
Since the shutdown officially began March 16, students across the state have used a combination of online learning and worksheets picked up from their school or dropped off at students' homes. Nearly 400 school buses equipped with wi-fi have been dispersed statewide to provide internet access for students who lack it at home. Some utilities are also offering qualifying families free internet connection during the crisis.
School districts have also provided more than 1.2 million free breakfasts and lunches to children under 18, through delivery and pick-up options, as of Tuesday, Spearman said.
"Learning is still going on in South Carolina," she said. "It’s been extraordinary what our school folks have put together and how they’re supporting not only the health needs of our students but their learning, as well."
There will be no end-of-year standardized testing this spring. Spearman previously announced the federal government, as it has for other states, approved skipping the high-stakes tests that are the basis of schools' state report cards.
The closures have brought a host of questions about how this school year will end and what the missed classroom time means for the upcoming year, which are still being worked through.
Spearman said she's sorry for seniors' sake that they're "missing out on things we remember as lifetime events: proms, ceremonies, reward days and just having time with senior friends.
"But you’re going to be very strong and you’ll make it through this, and you’ll look back on this as something that made you an even stronger individuals," she said. "I encourage you to get your work done, to work with your guidance counselors."