The Aiken County Public School District’s proposal for returning students to school includes sorting them into color-coded cohorts, controlling how many students are in schools based on phases and sending home laptops for students to go completely virtual.
Parents of students in the district have additional questions they want answered about the proposed plan regarding things such as childcare, internet access in rural areas and protocols for when a child tests positive for COVID-19.
Aiken County schools are scheduled to begin Aug. 17.
“The main focus is can we do this safely,” said William White, an Aiken father of four who has a child entering first grade.
“And that’s what everybody’s focus should be, and I think they have done a good job of understanding that and focusing on that, but it’s still pretty early in all of this to say for sure that bringing them back will be safe.”
The approach proposed by the district’s Back to School Task Force would split every child in the district into cohorts. There are six color-coded cohorts in the phased approach. Students in the same household will be in the same cohort regardless of their school.
In Phase One, each cohort would physically attend school one day a week. In Phase Two, each cohort would attend school two days per week. Phase Three would be four days and phase four would be five days.
Early learners in 4K through first grade would be on an altered schedule and attend school at least three days per week.
The proposed plan also includes a virtual-only option called Aiken Innovate, where students would be taught by virtual-only teachers, remain enrolled in school with access to clubs and extracurricular activities, and be assigned a laptop and internet hotspot if needed.
White said he likes the phased approach.
“I think with the goal being to flatten the curve and knowing that eliminating a return to school entirely is not something I would personally want, I think that it is a sound approach to trying to keep things as normal as we can,” he said.
Jennifer Moseley, who has a child entering fourth grade, said her main concerns are childcare and the criteria for moving in and out of phases.
She said with the phased approach, there are going to be days the children are home, and parents who use Quest Zone or daycares are unsure of what childcare will be available.
“It kind of just leaves the parents in a really, really tight spot for those of us that have to work and don’t have time to take off and stay home with our kids,” she said.
Moseley also mentioned that on days students are doing virtual learning, working parents will be on the job all day then come home and have to teach their children.
Moseley also wants to know what the criteria would be to move up or down a phase, and how much advance notice parents will be given before a phase change, mentioning parents will have to make arrangements for children if the schools go down a phase and kids are staying home more.
District Superintendent King Laurence asked during the Tuesday meeting that people not think of the phases in a “linear fashion.”
“We use the word phase for convenience more than anything else. There are very restrictive phases where we feel like the dangers outweigh the benefits of students being back in school. Doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s what’s going to happen on Aug. 17, so I want you to keep that in mind,” he said.
“We have very nonrestrictive phases. In fact, the most nonrestrictive phase would be going back to school as normal. We want to look at all of those things and give you a look at what it would look like on Aug. 17, whichever of those phases we end up recommending and whichever ones you end up approving for us to move forward with, or a combination of those,” Laurence said.
Other parents have expressed concerns about internet access in the rural areas of the county.
The task force plans to offer assistance with access in rural areas, according to a previous Aiken Standard article.
White said he feels the planned Aug. 17 school start date is too soon to start, “until we understand more about what’s happening, considering we’ve seen upticks recently, especially in the South.”
He said he’d like to see that date pushed back to allow for some “breathing room” and additional planning.
The district’s approach includes daily cleaning, plus intensive cleaning on specific days.
White said sanitation of the schools is going to be tricky, and he hopes the teachers receive some training on how to help students with that. He also said the parents are going to have to be involved with helping kids understand too.
The plan presented by the Back to School task force on Tuesday is merely a draft. The school board will consider the plan during its Tuesday, July 14, meeting and will also receive a closed session legal briefing on reopening, according to an agenda posted online.
The 6 p.m. meeting will be open to the public, and people who plan to attend in person should arrive at the district office early as capacity will be limited to ensure social distancing. The meeting will also be streamed live on the district’s website.