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SC schools could start later this fall, following guidance from coronavirus task force

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The S.C. Department of Education's accelerateEd task force has released its final recommendations outlining how local school districts should approach fall reopening. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Students and teachers across South Carolina could start school in the fall a few days later than originally planned under a recommendation by the state's coronavirus education task force Friday. 

The recommendation for a delayed start date is one of many suggestions made by the S.C. Department of Education's accelerateEd task force, a group of educators, administrators and state officials who've spent the past two months developing guidance of how schools across the Palmetto State should safely resume.

The group discussed revisions to a draft of fall reopening recommendations first presented last week, a 200-page document outlining key factors school districts should consider when forming their instruction plans before the start of the 2020-21 school year.

Last week, Gov. Henry McMaster outlined a plan to allocate $215 million in federal coronavirus aid to pay for five additional days of classroom instruction statewide to make up for time missed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

If the Legislature pays for the five extra days as expected, districts should “strongly consider" delaying the first day of school so as not to conflict with summer plans teachers or students might have, said Patrick Kelly, who heads the task force's instruction subcommittee. 

Task force members also announced plans to update the original recommendations to ask for additional state funding for school districts and receive waivers to suspend end-of-year standardized testing. 

While state Superintendent Molly Spearman said she wasn’t prepared to make any announcements regarding waivers Friday, she assured task force members it will be something she carefully considers once the final report is complete.

“I hear you and I want to do anything that we can to make school a safe place and take away as much anxiety as we can as we go forward,” she said.

It's unknown how much additional state funding task force members want districts to receive. 

Another significant update from last week's recommendations included a provision for each school to staff one nurse for every 750 students; that's up from the original recommendation of at least one nurse per school. 

The task force will hold a press conference Monday at 2:30 p.m. to present final suggestions for fall operations.

Some of the task force's draft recommendations called for school districts to consider include:

  • Social distancing in classrooms.
  • Widespread distribution of personal protective equipment.
  • Creating a distance learning contingency plan in the event of COVID-19 resurgence.
  • Changing the academic calendar.
  • Longer school days.
  • Staggered pickup/dropoff times.
  • Eating lunch in classrooms.
  • Shutting off water fountains.
  • Limiting capacity on school buses.
  • Hybrid models of in-person and online instruction.

It's not mandatory that school districts adhere to the task force's recommendations. Instead, they've been characterized as a list of "best practices" and suggestions. Officials emphasized that school districts' fall reopening plans will need to be tailored to local health conditions and the specific capabilities and resources available.

School districts across the state have been waiting for the task force to release their final guidance before any local-level decisions about fall reopening were made.

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One notable change to the original draft was a call for the General Assembly to increase the amount of per pupil funding each school district receives.

“With the undertaking of several new, necessary safety measurements by districts, the General Assembly will need to strongly consider the financial impacts districts will be facing and include this increased funding to the base student cost,” Kelly said. 

Spearman said she supported the task force’s request for additional per pupil funding but pointed out that school districts across the state will likely receive some $227 million from the General Assembly.

The Legislature returns to Columbia next week to allocate part of the $1.9 billion sent to South Carolina to reimburse state and local governments' COVID-19-related expenses. Recommendations from both  McMaster and the Senate Finance Committee call for funding a four-week summer camp for struggling kindergartners through third-graders, as well as bringing elementary and middle school students back a week early.

School districts are also receiving a share of $194 million in coronavirus aid the federal government sent directly to Spearman's agency, which can be used for expenses including teacher pay, sanitation and technology.

“I’m all for everything being funded, asking for more funding. I do it every year ... but I want this task force to recognize ... there’s going to be several hundred million dollars funded for this cause,” Spearman said.

The recommendations also include a measure to seek further guidance from the S.C. Department of Environmental Health and Control to provide thresholds for determining the level of COVID-19 community spread. Determining whether the spread in a particular area is classified as high, medium, or low directly relates to the way school districts will opt to provide instruction in the fall, Kelly said, whether it be entirely in-person, entirely online or a blend of the two.

When the final recommendations are published Monday, the document will include specific protocol from DHEC outlining what schools should do if a student or staff member tests positive within a school building.

“These criteria are needed by districts quickly, so this action should be a top priority,” Kelly said.

On Friday, Spearman repeatedly implored members of the public to wear masks or face coverings in public, citing a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in the Palmetto State.

“If we want to keep schools open, if we want to get back to a more normal life, we have to maintain social distancing, and we have to wear a mask when we’re out in public,” she said.

While masks won’t be mandatory for all students, she said, the state education agency will “set an expectation for mask wearing” in school communities moving forward. It's recommended that all students and staff wear masks inside unless a medical condition or extenuating circumstance prevents it. 

“We certainly need to press on our facility and our parents that one way to hold down the spread is to wear masks," she said. 

The drafted recommendations suggest districts communicate their plans for fall instruction clearly with the public at least 20 days before the first day of school.

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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