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SC schools chief starts approving district reopening plans, requires masks on buses

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COLUMBIA — The first reopening plans for South Carolina school districts received official approval Monday from the state's education chief, who also announced masks must be worn on school buses so they can transport more students.

Four of the six school districts given the go-ahead for the coming school year, including Berkeley County, give parents the option of sending their children to class five days a week, as Gov. Henry McMaster asked every district to do.

Teachers opposed that request Monday afternoon with a motorcade protest, blaring their horns as they drove by the Governor's Mansion and Statehouse. Signs held out of and written on windows included, "Until cases decline, we stay online" and "I can teach from a distance but not from a casket."

The drive-by protest was part of SC for Ed's "Virtual Until Safe" campaign to urge school boards to adopt reopening plans that don't bring students back for in-person learning until COVID-19 cases in South Carolina drastically drop. Scores of vehicles circled a largely empty Statehouse lawn for about an hour, after driving a route in downtown Columbia that started at the State Museum. 

One driver played the trombone while circling Statehouse grounds. Another rattled a tambourine out of her open sun roof. 

"We really need to get the numbers down before we go back to face-to-face," said Lisa Ellis, who founded the SC for Ed advocacy group on social media two years ago and led the caravan. "We wanted to have a visual that the community could see in terms of communicating that teachers do not feel safe going back under the current conditions."

The group is organizing local protests throughout this week as school boards finalize their plans.  

But it's state Superintendent Molly Spearman who has the final say. And, while she immediately dismissed McMaster's request that all districts offer a full-week option, she's made clear plans must include inviting students in for orientation and at least some face-to-face instruction. 

Signs on vehicles in the caravan accused McMaster of not caring about students' and teachers' health. McMaster and the GOP leaders who surrounded him at a news conference July 15 said it's important for students' well-being and education to return to class, saying they worry some may never catch up.   

"The governor appreciates the enthusiasm and passion of teachers today — as well as the courageous leadership of the four school districts approved to offer five day in-classroom instruction," said McMaster's spokesman, Brian Symmes. "With the option to choose between in-person or virtual instruction, parents in those districts are no longer faced with choosing between their children and keeping their job."

The messaging on one vehicle circling the Statehouse thanked Richland District One, which includes downtown Columbia schools, for planning to start online only and bring students back at some undetermined point in the future, depending on COVID-19 numbers.

Whether that plan, and others like it from many districts, will win approval is unknown. 

While most school boards have voted on their districts' plan before sending it to Spearman, Richland One was among those opting to sending in a plan without board approval, prompting criticism from some. But whether or when school boards approve their local plan is of no concern to the state agency. That's up to a local board's protocol, according to Spearman's agency, which is looking only for a local superintendent's signature.  

As of Monday, 73 of South Carolina's 81 districts had turned in plans for approval, while the rest received extensions. The submission deadline was supposed to be July 17. But McMaster's request two days earlier prompted many to ask for more time. 

Reopening plans approved in the first batch include Allendale County, Anderson 5, Berkeley County, Saluda County, Spartanburg 2 and Clover (York 2) school districts. Their start dates range from Aug. 17 to Aug. 31.

Spartanburg 2 and York 2 offer a full-week option in the elementary grades, which require adult help for online learning to happen, at ages students are too young to leave home alone. But that model starts after two weeks of staggered schedules. Berkeley County and Anderson 5 offer a traditional, five-days-a-week schedule to all grades, from opening day.

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Rural Allendale and Saluda counties are re-opening with hybrid plans that include three days learning online and two days in the classroom weekly. Five of the six districts also offer parents a fully virtual option.    

"The plans approved today offer parents high-quality, innovative face-to-face and virtual options while keeping student and staff safety as their top priority," said Spearman, who lives in Saluda County. "Our goal is for every school to return to five-day, face-to-face instruction as quickly as safety conditions allow."

In the meantime, she said, districts can accommodate teachers with underlying health issues by assigning them to work the all-virtual option, which will also reduce the size of in-person classes. In some districts, up to 40 percent of parents are choosing to stay virtual.

Combine that with an in-person hybrid option that splits up classes and brings in students for between one and three days weekly, and teachers may only have a handful of students in each class on any given day, allowing them to easily space apart, she told a state House panel last week. 

"We can get class sizes down small enough so teachers feel safe," Spearman said. 

But Ellis said SC for Ed doesn't support hybrid options, either.

"The teacher is still exposed to all the students throughout that week," she said, noting that middle and high school teachers have more than one class daily. "That doesn't diminish the exposure for teachers." 

As of Monday, more than 82,000 South Carolinians had tested positive for COVID-19 collectively since March, when McMaster ordered schools to close statewide, and 1,452 of them have died. South Carolina reported its first child death to the virus July 11.  

It is rare for children to get seriously ill from the disease that preys on the elderly and those with underlying health issues. Nationwide, children represent less than 1 percent of deaths, and 20 states had reported none as of last Thursday, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Data also suggests that, even if children contract the virus, they don't pass it on easily either. 

But teachers who protest returning to the classroom contend they don't want to essentially be case studies for the coronavirus that continues to surprise. 

Spearman also issued a face mask requirement Monday for school buses.

The mandate for students, drivers and any other staff on buses will allow them to increase the number of riders who can be transported to and from school. Guidelines from the state's public health agency had limited capacity to half for most buses.

Wearing masks allows increasing that to 67 percent of normal ridership, according to the state Education Department.  

Previously, Spearman strongly recommended that plans include staff and students wearing masks, but — like McMaster — stopped short of a statewide mandate for face coverings, saying her agency lacks the ability to enforce it in schools. But she hinted last week her stance may change.  

"We were saying 'highly recommend,'" she told legislators, while pulling on her own face covering. "You may see me moving to something stronger than that."

On Monday, she again urged residents to follow advice to wear masks and socially distance, saying that's how South Carolinians can "support their neighborhood school" and help "expedite our education system's return to normalcy."

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

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