Virus Outbreak South Carolina (copy)

South Carolina Education Superintendent Molly Spearman addresses the initial gathering of AccelerateED, a group tasked with advising Gov. Henry McMaster on safely scaling the state's economy back up amid the new coronavirus outbreak in Columbia.

AccelerateED, the task force created to guide the state's school districts through reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic, presented finalized recommendations for how schools should reopen this fall while implementing social distancing protocols and other coronavirus precautionary measures. 

S.C. State Superintendent Molly Spearman, who created the task force, broke down the guidelines into four phases during a press briefing Monday: immediate actions, summer planning and preparation, pre-opening and continuity of operations.

"Our focus from the state level down to each school and classroom must remain directed toward protecting the health, safety and wellness of students and staff while giving students the best possible learning experience that is as close to normal as health and safety will allow," Spearman said. 

Spearman warned that these recommendations may change closer to August depending on how the pandemic unfolds in the coming months. She called the recent surge in S.C. cases "extremely concerning" and claimed social distancing behaviors – and how well people conform to them – will be the "determining factor" as to what schools will look like in the fall. 

Spearman said these phases contain a "menu of options" for districts to choose from to allow for flexibility in the implementation of the coronavirus guidelines at the local level. This is due to the varying amount of resources and students present at each school.

The recommendations made by the task force (which has met with state and federal leaders and collaborated extensively with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control) have been posted online in a 92-page document. Spearman went over some of the highlights of the recommendations during the press briefing. 

At the state level, the task force has made the following recommendations:

• Education leaders should collaborate with DHEC to develop clear criteria to determine whether state areas have low, medium, or high spread of COVID-19, and how schools should appropriately respond.

• The state should take the lead on the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) in schools.

• Spearman shall pursue waivers for state and federally mandated standardized tests.

• Develop additional distance learning options in case schools are forced to close due to a severe surge in cases in the fall.

•  The state should address funding for districts to account for increased costs for COVID-19 protocols through grants or other revenue streams.

At the school and district level, the task force has made the following recommendations:

• Two-way ongoing communications between districts to students, parents and staff through methods such as surveys.

• Address the social-emotional needs of staff and students due to stress or trauma caused by the outbreak.

• Prepare cleaning protocols for facilities and classrooms, including frequently touched surfaces such as desks and doorknobs.

• All scheduling decisions for students should align with the latest health recommendations from state and federal authorities.

• Avoid the scheduling scenario where teachers have to do traditional and distance learning in the same class at the same time.

Three different education models for reopening have been developed by the task force: in-person learning, full distance learning and hybrid models (a cross between distance and in-person learning). 

AccelerateED has mandated that each school district create its own coronavirus task force to determine how the guidelines, which can be read in full online, should be implemented in schools. Aiken County has already created one – the Back to Schools Task Force.

The task force, which is comprised of employees from multiple areas across the district – such as teachers, food service and transportation – is expected to present its plans for reopening schools by mid-July. An update on the task force's work is expected to be delivered during the Aiken County School Board meeting on Tuesday, June 23. 

Spearman also said the state was working on a virtual option for students who are unable to attend in-person classes in the fall. Virtual S.C. is a virtual school run through the Department of Education that will be offered to students of public, private or in-home schools for free. 

Spearman said the majority of courses offered are currently for high schools students, but Virtual S.C. will be adding options for middle and elementary schools in the next few weeks. 

The full recommendations made by AccelerateED for districts can be read online at dedicationtoeducation.com.

Kristina Rackley is the health, education, and general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard. To support local journalism and access more articles, subscribe by clicking here