Charleston County students can expect their school buildings to look and feel more crowded next week as thousands more children return to the classroom for face-to-face instruction.
That comes even as COVID-19 cases in South Carolina continue to climb.
The district announced Monday it would bring back some 5,100 students Nov. 11 who have spent the first part of the academic year learning online.
The date marks the start of the district's second quarter.
The bulk of the new students returning to the classroom will be at the elementary level, said Michelle Simmons, the district's associate superintendent of the elementary learning community.
Nearly 900 additional middle school students and 710 high-schoolers will return in person next week, Simmons said, while an estimated 3,509 elementary school learners will also be brought back.
The announcement came at a special board meeting Monday.
Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait told board members last week the decision to bring additional students back was fueled in part by a desire to reduce strain on educators who've been forced to teach two groups of students, one online via Zoom and one in person, simultaneously.
The move also allows the district to significantly reduce the number of students who wanted face-to-face instruction but were temporarily placed on an in-person waitlist.
The district initially anticipated the new additions would bring the total number of in-person students to about 60 percent of the district's student enrollment.
On Monday, Simmons said that figure is now closer to about 70 percent.
On Nov. 11, about 30,000 students will be learning in person while around 12,000 will remain online, Simmons said.
The decision comes even as coronavirus cases in the state continue to rise, and the percentage of positive tests for the virus remains around 11.5 percent. About 5 percent of tests or fewer with positive results is a good sign the virus’ spread is slowing, researchers say.
Postlewait and other district leaders have emphasized that the decision to bring more students back in person will not violate any of the guidelines to safely open schools during the coronavirus pandemic created by state health officials, the Medical University of South Carolina or the S.C. Department of Education.
The district will not exceed any of the previously established coronavirus "safe seating capacities" at any school, said Chief Operating Officer Jeff Borowy.
At schools where large numbers will return in person next week, the district has been working with school principals to make sure common spaces, such as cafeterias and hallways, are able to accommodate the extra influx of students.
No major outbreaks have been reported at schools so far, and Borowy told board members last week the district's efforts to identify cases and perform contact tracing have been working well.
While more than half of CCSD's 80 or so schools have reported positive COVID-19 cases since the first day of school, most of those schools have only reported one to three cases, according to the district's online coronavirus dashboard.
James B. Edwards Elementary in Mount Pleasant has seen the highest total number of confirmed cases than any other school, with seven positives as of Friday.
The district had reported 106 total cases since Sept. 8 across 52 schools, according to the dashboard.
This isn't the first time the district has decided to bring more students back to the classroom.
At least 4,000 students who'd been placed on an in-person waitlist were allowed to return to the classroom in late September and early October, sparking criticisms from teachers and parents who felt the move was not safe given the current level of virus activity.
In order to bring even more children back this time, the district has been forced to make some difficult adjustments, such as consolidating students still enrolled in the district's online learning option, also known as the "temporary remote" platform.
By bringing more students back face to face, 21 elementary schools across the district will see significantly lower numbers of students who choose to remain online.
For example, Simmons said, it might be possible that one elementary school only has five kindergartners enrolled in the school's online platform.
"It’s hard to dedicate a full-time certified teacher to five kids," Simmons said.
As a result, some of the 1,100 or so students who wished to remain in the temporary remote option across those 21 schools could be grouped with other students opting to continue learning from home at a different school nearby.
This means some students will have new teachers, new classmates and new schedules midway through the year.
District leaders have called the shuffling "not ideal," but have also presented it as the best path to alleviate teachers' workloads and satisfy parents' requests.
"We believe this collaboration will allow us to do a few things: honor our family preferences, adhere to our safe seating capacity and maintain student-teacher class ratio," Simmons said.
Parents will be notified before Saturday if there student needs to be reassigned, said Karolyn Belcher, the district's chief academic officer.
The board voted Monday to cancel its Nov. 9 Committee of the Whole meeting, citing a lack of action items on the agenda. The next meeting will be on Nov. 16.