South Carolina's K-12 schools have been ordered to remain closed throughout the remainder of the 2019-20 academic school year as a COVID-19 precaution, Gov. Henry McMaster announced at a press conference on Wednesday morning. The order will officially be issued next week.
McMaster's previous school closure order made on March 15 was in effect until April 30. The decision to extend it through the rest of the academic calendar was one that McMaster and Education Superintendent Molly Spearman feel confident about given the circumstances of the coronavirus.
"Governor, I want to thank you for making this very difficult decision but you have made the right decision," Spearman said. "The schools are the backbone of the community and when they're closed all of us hurt."
Although schools will be closed for the rest of the year, McMaster noted there will be flexibility statewide for those with special needs instruction and summer schooling. Spearman added that she is creating a task force that will begin working on a summer reading and math platform for students across the state.
"Our buildings will not open for the rest of the year but instruction will continue to go on," Spearman said. "As the Governor said, we've got to keep our partnership between teachers and families going really well."
As for at-home instruction, Spearman reported that more than 80% of 4,000 S.C. teachers said teaching virtually from home has been successful up to this point. While effective instruction is crucially important, Spearman said what's most vital is for parents to look out for the fiscal and emotional health of their family.
In terms of school district nutrition services,(cut) Spearman noted more than 5 million meals have been provided statewide to students through school cafeteria programs. For Charleston County School District's (CCSD) meal distribution schedule, visit ccsdschools.com/Page/4740.
"It has been remarkable to see the highly successful effort that has been made," McMaster said. "I've never seen anything like it. To see that all of our students have educational advantages and opportunities at home."
McMaster noted school districts have provided computers, tablets and distance learning equipment for students. For more information on CCSD's IT services and bus Wi-Fi for students, visit ccsdschools.com/Page/4631.
"I want to particularly thank the teachers, the administrators, the superintendents, the staffs in the cafeteria, the custodial and others who have done a remarkable job on taking care of the schools and the children," McMaster said.
McMaster also thanked the parents for their homeschooling efforts. He joked lightheartedly that some have probably learned a thing or two after helping their sons and daughters with their homework.
"This has been a hardship and a challenge on many, many people in our state and I want to thank (parents) and congratulate them for the grand job and the perseverance, discipline and understanding they're showing," McMaster added.
Shortly after McMaster’s decision, CCSD released the following statement:
“We understand that this is a very difficult decision, and we are in support of the Governor’s decision to continue the school closure for the remainder of this academic year. While we all want to return to normal when it comes to school and related activities, this decision reinforces that the health and safety of students and staff must always come first.
“Our remote delivery of academic instruction and other supports will continue for the remainder of the year, including plans to close out the year with special recognitions for seniors and personal contacts with students and families at every grade level.”
With school no longer returning to its regular schedule this year, McMaster said that graduation plans will continue to be brainstormed over the coming weeks in hopes to craft a solution using creativity but keeping safety at the forefront. In the meantime, school district leaders have sent Spearman's department creative ideas and plans for graduation.
On April 20, CCSD Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait sent out a districtwide video addressed to seniors. In that message, Postlewait discussed the uncertainties related to COVID-19 and social distancing precautions that have forced CCSD to consider different graduation scenarios.
"We will find a way to make certain you have an appropriate and fitting graduation ceremony," Postlewait said.
If graduation ceremony gatherings can't be held on the originally planned dates, Postlewait noted that CCSD is developing a backup plan tentatively for the first week of June. One that includes a virtual, livestreamed graduation plus an actual ceremony at a later date when it's considered safe to do so. Details are in the early planning stages with principals districtwide.
"We understand that there's no good substitute for a face-to-face graduation," Postlewait said. "...We truly understand your disappointment about having missed the final weeks of your senior year. COVID-19 has taken away many things we enjoy, but it's also made us pause, reflect on our blessings and focus on what's truly valuable in this life."
During the last two weeks of the school year, teachers will be able to gather their belongings from their classrooms if need be by using social distancing techniques. As for faculty and students retrieving materials and personal belongings in classrooms, staff will be working with district officials, superintendents and principals.
Looking ahead to August and if COVID-19 circumstances are still relevant at the start of the 2020-21 school year, Spearman noted she'll be evaluating several factors that relate to social distancing. She explained that currently, school buses seat 78 students, three to a seat. Also, the size and spacial awareness of classrooms that average 800 square feet. She also said that classrooms typically hold 24 students, so setups may need to be more strategic in order to safely accommodate.
"It has been a burden," Spearman said. "It's been sad to see schools close, but it has been a joy to see how everyone has pulled together and worked together on this for the good of our children. And that will remain our top priority: the safety and the learning of our students."