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SC parents, students brace for coronavirus impact, raise school cancellation concerns

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A student heads back to class at Cane Bay Middle School in Summerville on Thursday, January 30, 2020. Colleges and schools across the United States are closing their doors to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Colleges and schools across the United States are closing their doors to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. As a result, many are forced to grapple with some of the secondary consequences students and employees might face, raising questions about money, class credits, and food and housing resources. 

In South Carolina, many major public colleges are extending spring break and advising students to avoid campuses if possible. Many others are ramping up efforts to switch to online learning in case a campus is closed long-term.

The University of South Carolina shocked students when it announced earlier this week that spring break would be extended by a week and that classes would be held online through April 3. While USC's Beaufort and Aiken satellite campuses will extend spring break, no schedule changes had been made at USC Upstate location as of Thursday afternoon.

The university is evaluating what steps it will take to address its several hundred students studying abroad in Europe, said spokesman Jeff Stensland.

"This is unprecedented," Stensland said. "We've never dealt with anything like this before."

The university has been in touch with all students in Europe, now under a Level 3 travel warning by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and has given them options for returning home.

Winthrop University announced on Thursday it would extend spring break and switch to online instruction through early April.

Josh LeClerg, a junior at Winthrop, said the college's messaging raised more questions than answers for him, such as whether students who planned to stay on campus over the break will be allowed to do so.

"I recognize the importance of these steps; however, there are a lot of variables left unaccounted for and loose ends that could prove problematic. Better, more timely communication was key here and Winthrop administration failed on that early on," LeClerg said.

The university said on its website that "international students and other populations with specific needs will be accommodated on a case-by-case basis" but "in general, there will limited access during this two-week period."

The College of Charleston and Clemson University made similar announcements Thursday afternoon after advising students to take home their textbooks, laptops and other supplies necessary to continue academic instruction over spring break. 

CofC has suspended all in-person classes for a week following spring break, but the college said eLearning could continue beyond that. 

Wofford College has no confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, but campus officials decided on Thursday to extend spring break. Classes will continue through March 20. The break will last until classes resume April 6. 

Bob Jones University, a private, evangelical college in Greenville, said on Thursday all of its students would complete classes online for the remainder of the semester. 

After President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday night a 30-day ban on travel to the United States from most of Europe, many colleges that had not already recalled students studying abroad decided to do so. 

Winthrop's interim president, George Hynd, said in an email to students on Thursday that "there remains too much uncertainty in international travel for us to allow them to continue their experiences."

Alden Parker, a senior at Clemson, was planning to go to India for a school-sponsored research project that was also canceled because of COVID-19 travel fears.

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She was disappointed about not being able to go, but said she understood the college's reasoning.

She knows some students that are capitalizing on the virus by booking cheap flights and cruises. She worried that if the university switches to online instruction it could negatively impact students. 

"For students who live on campus and have meal plans, for some of them, that's their food source. For some students, this is where they live. And if you switch to online school, some students don't have Wi-Fi," Parker said. 

These concerns have been echoed from parents with students in South Carolina's K-12 public school system. 

District officials have repeatedly reminded parents that they remain in close communication with state health officials and the S.C. Department of Education, who will issue guidance in determining whether or not schools should close. Districts have been instructed to not make these type of decisions without consulting state officials. 

Education Department spokesman Ryan Brown said the department has received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for schools to serve meals over the summer in the event of an extended school closure.

The department is also asking all school districts to submit a 10-day plan for continued instruction in case of prolonged school closure. It's also recommending schools excuse student absences related to school closure. 

While no public schools in South Carolina have closed so far, some parents fear that not enough is being done to manage the spread of the virus proactively. 

As of Thursday afternoon, there were 12 cases of the disease caused by the virus, COVID-19, reported in South Carolina. Six have been confirmed by the federal CDC. 

In order to address the virus, schools have increased their cleaning procedures and have advised teachers to emphasize proper hand-washing techniques. Many have also suspended class visits to nursing homes and hospitals as an extra precaution. 

Kat Martin, who has a first-grader in the Charleston County School District, said she has decided to keep her son home from school, starting Friday. This decision was not made out of fear for her or her family, Martin said, but it was a measure to limit the spread between young people and the older adults who work in the school system. 

Martin said a lot of her friends have said they've wanted to do the same but are worried about unexcused absences. 

District spokesman Andy Pruitt said any student not at school will be marked absent, per state law. He said if students are feeling sick they should stay home. 

"My biggest concern is mostly for the elderly and immunocompromised people in the community," Martin said. "Our kids are going to be the fastest way to transmit this virus from person to person."

Francis Beylotte, another CCSD parent, shared these concerns. 

"My daughter sneezes in my face and she's 10 years old. Younger kids are even worse. The consequences of starting this too late are way higher than acting too early," he said. 

CCSD said Thursday that all international field trips are canceled and that schools will no longer be able to schedule new field trips of any kind, regardless of location. Existing field trips, both in-state and out-of-state are being evaluated. 

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

Jenna Schiferl was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina and is a graduate of the University of South Carolina. She has worked as an education reporter for The Post and Courier since 2019.

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