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Reality of virtual shortcomings highlights students return to school in Horry, Georgetown counties

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For thousands across the Grand Strand, the past seven days have involved a rollercoaster of emotions.

The nerves and cautious optimism surrounding the return of brick-and-mortar schools; the uncertainty of teacher assignments; and the mounting frustrations of a virtual learning system that wasn’t quite ready for takeoff.

Welcome to K-12 education amid a pandemic.

While Georgetown County Schools started in a fully virtual environment, with teachers utilizing their physical classrooms to host their students, just under 30 percent of Horry County’s 45,000 students began a semester-long commitment to HCS Virtual — or at least that was the plan.

Wrought with hundreds of students not receiving their schedules by mid-week (already a week after the initial release on Sept. 2), while others were not able to access the virtual platform in order to touch base with their teachers, nor start course work, it was a week-long bumpy ride.

Horry County Schools announced on what was supposed to be the first day of school — Sept. 8 — that the district’s HCS Virtual students would officially begin instruction on Sept. 14, or at least as an initial goal.

“We are making any necessary corrections as we receive notifications,” said Lisa Bourcier, HCS’ director of strategic communications and community engagement.

Plenty of parents around the district didn’t agree with that as the week neared an end, many slamming district administrators via the HCS Facebook page, while others spoke out anonymously due to fear of retribution toward their children.

One Carolina Forest High School parent was moved to tears after she connected with the district trying to switch her son back into brick-and-mortar due to his Attention Deficit Disorder diagnosis that he received this summer.

The family initially chose HCS Virtual for the senior, believing that it would be better for everyone’s health — a snap judgement after HCS gave parents seven days to decide whether or not they wanted to make the semester-long choice to attend HCS Virtual full-time.

After meeting the Aug. 10 deadline to enroll in HCS Virtual, the family received an unexpected email from the school’s principal, Gaye Driggers, on Aug. 13 offering the opportunity to opt out of HCS Virtual and back into brick-and-mortar. HCS representatives did not respond to multiple messages to verify the extension.

The note, with the subject line of “Important Information from Principal Driggers,” stated:

“If you no longer want your student enrolled in HCS Virtual School, reply to this email with a 'No.' If you have other questions, reply 'More Information by email' or 'Please call.' If you request information, please watch for an email or phone call. Ultimately, this is your decision, we just want to make sure you are well informed.”

Already having second thoughts about her initial decision, the mom did message back to move her son to brick-and-mortar, stating “Please call.”

On Aug. 14, while at work, she did receive a call, but couldn’t pick up. Once she was off of work, there was no one to connect to.

Driggers’ note, nor the phone message, had indicated that there was a noon deadline on Aug. 14 in order to reverse the family’s decision.

On Aug. 17, she started calling, emailing and texting school officials, but to no avail.

“I did everything I was asked, on time, and it still didn’t matter,” said the parent of two, indicating that her daughter is already homeschooled.

She has pleaded with the district every week since, but has been denied, with follow-up communication to the school going ignored.

She connected with Superintendent Rick Maxey, who told her to connect with Driggers. She pushed back, wanting an audience with Maxey, who rejected the idea in a second note.

On Aug. 21, the parent wrote:

“Sir, With all due respect, I have pleased my case because I was never informed by anyone that there was a deadline at 12pm Friday. I still want to discuss this matter with you.”

Maxey pointed to his conversations with Driggers, as well as Boone Myrick (HCS Chief Academic Officer), Lee James (HCS Learning Services Principal Specialist) and April Scott (HCS Executive Director of Secondary Schools) in officially denying the request.

“The K-12 HCS Virtual Program application which you submitted states, 'Participation in K-12 HCS Virtual (full-time) requires a semester commitment. Parents/guardians may request to transfer at the change of the semester. Transfers may be approved as space allows,'” Maxey wrote.

“At the end of first semester, you may make a request of Ms. Driggers for your son to be transferred out of the K-12 HCS Virtual program. Ms. Driggers will review your request, and if space allows at CFHS, she will approve your request.

“In conclusion, your son cannot withdraw from the K-12 HCS Virtual Program, and that decision is final.”

The parent asked if there was an appeal process, a concept that she said the district has rejected. Multiple attempts to verify whether or not there is an appeal process with HCS had gone unanswered as of press time.

On Thursday, she sat her son down and told him that she didn’t think she had any fight left in her, and that it was likely a decision they’d have to live with.

He looked at her and said, “I’m not asking for much, I just want to go to school.”

For the parent, she questions what the district did with the past six months in preparation for this moment, not to mention the “hypocrisy” of the district pushing deadlines and changing their minds, but not allowing parents to do the same — even when deadlines are met.

“It’s ironic that the district kept pushing things back further and further so that they could make up their minds, but can’t do the same for students and parents,” she said. “The lack of empathy and compassion just isn’t there. Honestly, my communications with them have been downright nasty. There is no heart.”

Throughout the opening week of school, HCS indicated that it would be sticking to its plan and showed no signs of budging.

“Before administrators can finalize schedules for students for the upcoming school year, they must know the number of students who will be enrolled in the brick-and-mortar schools and the number enrolled in the K-12 HCS Virtual Program,” Bourcier said.

“Once they have the numbers, they will have to revise or recreate the master schedules. This is a lengthy and complex process that involves creating schedules for students attending face-to-face classes on different days for the hybrid model, as well as creating teacher schedules. In addition, after master schedules are finalized, the transportation schedule, including the assignment of students to specific buses, has to be built.”

The Carolina Forest High School family wasn’t alone in its frustrations, with parents such as Tia Marie Mahaffey also dealt with communication issues and delays with the district.

Mahaffey has proof that she signed her son up for HCS Virtual, meeting the district’s Aug. 10 deadline. Yet, he was placed in a hybrid group that was supposed to report to school on Tuesday.

When she reached out to the district, she says the employee was short with her.

“When I explained he was supposed to be virtual they told me I should have thought about that when I signed up because the time had passed for a spot to be open for him. I explained that I did sign up on time and had chosen virtual school. It wasn’t my mistake,” said Mahaffey, a mother of four, two within the HCS Virtual program.

“The woman on the phone told me I shouldn’t have been so careless. I again explained that I had registered him correctly and he needed to be moved. She said I’ll write your name and number down but virtual school registration was closed. She wasn’t listening at all that he had been registered as a virtual student and the error was on HCS side, not mine.”

Mahaffey pointed to the unpredictability of the schedule wreaking havoc with her business ventures, as she and her husband run Mindful Pest and Property Solutions. They now have to rotate shifts at work in order to be on standby at home.

“We are used to working together so this is hard for all of us,” Mahaffey said.

For Stephanie Maribel Cruz, a single mother of two, the past few weeks have been both a logistical and emotional nightmare.

With her son unexpectedly landing in HCS Virtual — she says she did not sign-up her second-grader — she attempted to get her son put back into brick-and-mortar to also help with his IEP (Individualized Education Program), but was also told that it was too late.

“The lady that was assisting with giving out devices said she was sorry, but she can’t switch until the next semester,” Cruz said. “So a bunch of children are set up to fail this year. It’s not even our fault.”

Cruz was also concerned about her son’s attendance due to not having internet access at home.

“They suggested me sitting at Chaplin Memorial Library all day with him so he can complete his school work,” Cruz said.

Cruz balked at the idea, knowing that her 2-year-old wouldn’t sit still long enough to let her son get his school work done.

With the pledge that HCS Virtual parents take to be more involved with their students’ self-guided academics for the semester, Cruz is left afraid that truancy or absences could end up pushing the school to call authorities for check-ins on the family.

She connected with the district about the issue, only to be told that she was ultimately on her own.

“I do not want to lose my children because my oldest can’t connect to his classes,” Cruz said. “The schools don’t care and don’t even have answers to give to low income families like myself.”

• • •

‘Just how it has to be’

Written by Jay Rodriguez,

Five-year-old Eric Ballard Jr. squatted next to his Puma book bag Sept. 8 in front of his parents’ beautiful brick home in the Socastee community of Myrtle Beach as he dug elbow-deep, searching from pocket to pocket.

“What are you looking for?” asked his 7-year-old sister Haizley.

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“My mask!” Eric exclaimed, showing a bit of restlessness for his first day of kindergarten at Socastee Elementary.

“She meant over here,” Haizley said as she walked toward the front door of their home. Haizley was referring to what their mom, Becky, had already told Eric — that his mask was at the front door.

“Got it, brother!” Haizley shouted as she ran toward Eric with his black-and-white sports mask in hand.

“Where was it?” Eric asked, as he looked up from his bag, his hair parted perfectly and a freshly missing tooth he lost from the night before.

“At the front door,” Haizley said matter of factly.

It’s that organized and, at times, protective older-sister mentality that put Becky and her husband, Eric Sr., at ease sending their children off to school on Tuesday morning, ending a six-month, coronavirus-induced hiatus for students across Horry County.

However, it was the nostalgic act of walking Eric into his kindergarten class for his first official day of school that caused the youngster to have a mini-breakdown on the ride to school and mom to be heartbroken.

“There are so many little things that, as a parent, I don’t get with him,” Becky said. “We didn’t get to meet his teacher together. Me, Eric and Eric all walked Haizley in. I have videos of her walking to her classroom, setting her stuff up in her desk. Those are just things with him that aren’t going to be there.

“And he’s my last baby. He’s my baby, baby.”

Neither Eric Sr. or Becky, or any parent for that matter, were able to walk their children into school because of the district’s drop-off policy that required parents who drove their kids to school to let them out curbside.

Staff members with protective masks at Socastee Elementary opened the doors of cars formed in a single-file line Tuesday welcomed the kids and pointed them to the entrance.

“With Haizley, I have a picture of her sitting at her desk with her name on it. I won’t have that,” Becky said. “I have a picture of Haizley with her teacher on her first day of kindergarten. I won’t have that with him. I understand everybody’s going through it, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

“I understand it is what it is, it’s just hard that this is the way it is. I mean, he’s supposed to have these nerves, but he’s not supposed to have the fear or be scared of walking in by himself. It’s probably not even him, it’s more me.”

In a way, the Ballards got lucky.

Eric Jr. has the same kindergarten teacher as Haizley did when she was in kindergarten. In fact, instead of Eric Jr. simply putting on a sticker that states his teacher Ms. Cast’s name, Haizley was able to walk him in — like a protective older sister.

“If it wasn’t for Haizley, how did I know my child made it to his classroom?” Becky asked rhetorically. “He has never been in there to see where his classroom is and you just want me to put my baby on the sidewalk and hope that he made it his classroom?”

Becky said she has been trying to see it from both the school’s side and her side, but her “heart is just in the mommy mode.”

“As difficult as it is for the parents, I think that it possibly could be even more difficult for the teachers and the administrators that are having to go through this,” she said. “At the end of the day, they’re there because they love children. They’re definitely not there for their paycheck. I think that if they could have figured out a way for it to happen, I feel like they would have.

“I think that they’re trying to do what is best and what is the right thing. I go back and forth between (being) the parent, and being angry and frustrated; to they’re not doing this on purpose. This is just how it has to be right now.”

• • •

‘Choosing calm over chaos’

Written by Tyler Fleming,

Melissa Rutenberg, serving in her third year as principal of Forestbrook Middle School, couldn’t sleep on the night before the first day of school out of anticipation of leading a team of teachers and staff through a historic first day of school for Horry County.

The day her and her staff had planned for months finally arrived — with Rutenberg starting to greet teachers as early as 6:45 a.m.

Was Rutenberg worried about the first day of a hybrid model education system during a pandemic?

“That ‘w’ word is not in my vocabulary,” Rutenberg said. “We are concerned for their safety and that everything goes smoothly. We have done a ton of communication on the front end of students attending our school.”

Forestbrook Middle School’s theme this year is “choosing calm over chaos” — with Rutenberg explaining that the motto is just as much for the school’s staff as it is for the kids.

“It’s our job to help the kids stay calm and if we are chaotic we can’t do that. So the adults have to remember that our role is to help students at all times,” Rutenberg said. “It’s calm over chaos. We are choosing that. It’s a daily choice.”

Car rider students began arriving shortly after 7 a.m., but had to wait in their cars until teachers could formally and safely welcome them into class. First the car riders were dropped off, and a security guard kindly reminded students to put their masks on before heading inside.

Then nearly empty buses arrived dropping off handfuls of waving students at a time. Teachers helped keep students separated and reminded them to wear a mask.

The first day of class will be more informational than educational, making sure students understand why these social distancing rules are necessary. Rutenberg said new students will get a tour, meet all their teachers and learn what is expected of them this year.

Roughly 250 students are expected to be in each Group A and Group B, with the former getting the in-person head start on Tuesday, while Group B will report on Wednesday.

Hannah Sweat, a math teacher at Forestbrook Middle School, had been preparing throughout the summer to welcome students back into the classroom.

“I’ve definitely worked no less than four to five hours a week even during the summer since there are so many unknowns,” Sweat said. “I wanted to make sure I was prepared for basically every outcome and I think that is the same for every teacher in the building.”

While Sweat is nervous about balancing the hybrid model, with different students coming every other day, she hopes her students take advantage of the digital side of teaching. It’s her plan to use all the resources available to make this year worthwhile for her math students.

Typically on the first day, Sweat has her students make goal-setting pennants as a way to get to know the incoming students. This year, the pennants will be made virtually and students will color them in using their computers.

“I normally let them hang them on the wall and let them color. This year they will color digitally,” Sweat said.

“I think they may be more apt to tell the truth when no one else is seeing it.”

• • •

‘I’m still a little nervous’

Written by Danny Kelly,

As the Georgetown County School District started the 2020 school year completely virtually, teachers still made their way into the classroom — giving them more space to teach and to get comfortable ahead of when the district’s hybrid students return to campus in the near future.

Georgetown High School English teacher Jamie Langston will not have to worry about students coming back to her classroom this semester — she’s a full-time virtual teacher for the semester.

“Honestly, I know my way around technology in the classroom, but I’m still a little nervous,” Langston said. “I feel like a first-year teacher. But I’m going to do my best today and I think that I’ve over-planned; I think a lot of us might’ve over-planned, but it’s better to stay ahead of the game instead of behind.”

GCSD Superintendent Keith Price and his staff have worked diligently to get the county's schools to this long-anticipated start.

“It’s unlike anything we’ve ever experienced,” Price said. “This is a brand-new start to a brand-new school year in a way that we’ve never experienced before.”

GCSD will have completely remote learning for its first two weeks of learning. After two weeks and pending approval from the state health department that its schools are medium-risk, GCSD will allow students who signed up for hybrid classes to start coming to the school on Sept. 21.

“When we move to our hybrid phase, the students who have opted for the in-person and hybrid options, they’re going to be divided into two groups,” Price said. "Between 30 and 35 percent opted for the all-virtual option, so that means that our class sizes should be out 30 to 35 percent smaller if we were five days a week of in-person instruction. You take that number, since we’re going to hybrid, and we split those students into two groups: A Groups and B Groups. So you take that remaining number and split it in half and you won’t have any more than half of that number on any given hybrid day.”

GCSD requires students to wear masks and to socially distance. To aide in this, the district will put yellow stickers in the hallways for students to stand on so they are 6 feet apart from everyone else.

Georgetown High is using blue lines in the hallway to aide students with social distancing.

“(It’s been) encouraging,” Georgetown High Principal Craig Stone said about getting ready for the first day of school. “Teachers have come back; they’re extremely excited and energetic about the opportunity to have the kids come back. I know we’re starting off virtually, but we’re hoping to transition to hybrid (and then) to the prime base where we can have the kids inside the building (every day).”

Pleasant Hill Elementary School Principal Teddy Graham admits that it’s been difficult getting ready for such an unprecedented school year.

“Well, it’s been a challenge; it’s definitely the most difficult thing that I’ve encountered in my career, just getting ready for such a vast array of services that we’re having to provide,” he said.

“(Just) one of them is challenge. If we went hybrid, it would be a challenge; if we went completely virtual, it would be a challenge; if we’re face to face in the building, it would be a challenge. We have all three to prepare for, and it’s been a monumental task in terms of preparation.”

Reach Nick Masuda at 843-607-0912. Follow him on Twitter at @nickmasudaphoto. 

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