The Aiken County School Board held a virtual meeting March 24 to discuss construction projects and administration appointments amid coronavirus closures that have halted normal operations within the school district.

Speaking through video chat in compliance with social distancing precautions, Dr. Shawn Foster, Chief Operations Officer, said construction projects at Belvedere Elementary School would involve replacing two computer labs and creating a "clearly identified front entrance" for the school.

Foster also said the school's current layout has caused the surrounding area to have some traffic issues during dismissal. Construction projects would aim to help alleviate traffic in the surrounding streets during pickup.

The overall project budget is estimated to be around $16.7 million. A little over $4 million of the estimated budget would go toward leveling the site, as the current grade has presented some challenges for construction, Foster said. 

Project goals for construction at Hammond Hill Elementary involve the renovation of outdated school facilities (some of which date back to the 1950s), eliminating nine portable classrooms and making the entire campus handicap accessible. 

Foster said construction would also aim to improve vehicle and pedestrian traffic flow.

Administration appointments were also voted into action following executive session.

Beth Taylor, coordinator of instructional programming, has been appointed director of the new behavioral intervention program the school district is designing to mitigate some discipline issues with students. 

The program, originally referred to as the MOSAIC Project, is expected to become operational in the 2020-2021 school year, though Taylor said coronavirus disruptions may delay its implementation.

Taylor, who has worked in the school district for 17 years, said her background is "heavily rooted" in behavior, which she believes requires a personal approach for each individual student.   

"My role (as director) will be to work with the committee and work with the staff (we plan to hire) to develop a program that is rooted in social-emotional learning," Taylor said. 

Sara-Beth Brown, an assistant principal serving through the Aspiring Principals Program, was appointed Chukker Creek Elementary's new principal.

Brown, who has a decade of experience in administration in the Aiken County Public School District, will assume the position during the 2020-2021 school year.

Jennifer Hart, director of human resources for the school district, was also appointed to a new leadership role during the school board meeting. Hart will be taking over as chief officer of human resources and administration, a position formerly held by King Laurence, now the district's superintendent.

“Jennifer brought a wealth of human resources and business knowledge when she came to our district a couple of years ago,” Laurence said in a news release. “As chief officer of human resources and administration she will continue to use that experience to help lead our school district to even greater heights.”

Laurence also praised the school district's swift actions in response to coronavirus closures. 

A few hours before the virtual meeting began, a joint statement was issued by S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman declaring public schools, colleges and universities would remain closed through the month of April due to the expected worsening of the outbreak. 

Public commentary during board meetings has been suspended until further notice due to the COVID-19 outbreak and the board's need to meet virtually to allow for social distancing practices.

Despite Laurence's praise of distance learning, board member Dr. John Bradley voiced concerns about how the six-week long shutdown would affect the education of some students who may struggle with a learning environment outside a traditional classroom setting.

"I'm concerned that kids are missing essentially a third of the school year," Bradley said.

Among those he was worried for were high school seniors who might be missing "critical concepts" outside the classroom. 

Bradley suggested the board may need to explore the idea of offering remedial classes during the summer.

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.