The Aiken County Public School District school board met Tuesday to vote on a proposal for reopening schools after The Star's press deadline. Details from Tuesday evening's meeting can be found online at northaugustastar.com.
School district employees warned during a meeting July 7 that no perfect solution exists as to how schools will choose to reopen in the fall due to the impact of coronavirus.
"No matter what you hear somebody is going to be angry," said Dr. Phyllis Gamble, leader of the district's local coronavirus education task force.
Gamble, who is also the executive director of middle schools for the Aiken County Public School District, gave a briefing on the Back To School Task Force's current plans for how to safely resume class in August during a special called meeting with the Aiken County School Board on July 7.
The topics discussed are not complete recommendations, Gamble said. The recommendations currently presented are also a "draft," task force members said.
The majority of parents and staff, according to data collected through surveys conducted by the task force, want a return to face-to-face classes but with safety protocols put in place to try and limit the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
The next most popular choice, according to the survey, was for students to attend face-to-face classes on alternating days.
Any method chosen, Gamble said, comes with complications and challenges – social distancing in full schools or lack of access to daycare or other services on days when students, theoretically, would not be in school.
The plans also include a four-phase approach, with different phases corresponding with different levels of school occupancy. Phase Four would entail schools being at 100% capacity, with Phase One having schools at only 33% capacity.
Phases One through Three involve students attending in-person classes on alternating days while remaining in groups called cohorts.
"When you see the word 'phase' ... do not think of those things in a linear fashion," Aiken County Public School District Superintendent King Laurence said. "We use the word phase more for convenience than anything else."
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.
"Students will remain in their same cohort, and this would also allow for contact tracing," Gamble said.
If a student does become infected, contact tracing can be done in these groups and the student will be removed from the group setting, Laurence said.
Some of the recommendations already made by the task force are as follows:
• Limit the amount of students on school buses and frequently clean buses.
• No use of water fountains in schools.
• Have signage or dividers directing the flow of traffic in buildings.
• Serve lunch in classrooms to limit cafeteria crowding.
• Encourage wearing masks in schools.
• Increase sanitation of school facilities.
Teachers will be provided five face masks by the state and students will be provided with two masks, Gamble said.
Some students may opt for virtual-only school, such as those who are immunocompromised. To prevent teachers from teaching distance and in-person classes at the same time, some teachers will be assigned to only teach virtual school.
The task force is planning to provide internet to rural areas through hot spots, as funding from the CARES Act for increased broadband access is a lengthy project. However, task force members said distance learning in rural areas would be "a challenge" due to a lack of devices or broadband access in rural areas in South Carolina.
Members of both the school board and the Back to School Task Force cautioned that current recommendations are a draft and are subject to change.
"This is an evolving situation, and it's really going to continue to change all the way up to August ... it may change on Aug. 16," said Board Chair Kieth Liner.
Aug. 17 is currently scheduled to be the first day of school.
Parents in Aiken County have an option through the public school system for full-time virtual learning for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
The district's program, called Aiken Innovate, provides fulltime virtual learning at home for students, and residents who plan to enroll in virtual-only learning this coming year must enroll by July 20.
Students will receive direct instruction from local teachers who are "100% dedicated to online teaching and learning," according to the Aiken County Public School District website.
Aiken Innovate is a franchise of VirtualSC, a state-sponsored virtual learning program.
"Students will engage in scheduled virtual meetings, collaborative discussions, and assignments involving interactive resources that are
completed at home," according to the website.
The program will allow students to be fully enrolled in their school with all opportunities available to them such as extracurricular activities, clubs, plays and graduation.
For those with internet access issues or no computer technology, the school district has placed an expedited order for student laptops, it says, but the demand is greater than the supply nationwide.
"Students without access to a home computer/laptop will be issued laptops first," according to the district's website. The district's website states that enrollment in the program will require a commitment of the student's parent/guardian to ensure that the student is successful, especially at the elementary and middle school levels.
Those who wish to take part in Aiken Innovate must commit to at least one semester.
The deadline to enroll is July 20. Questions can be emailed before July 20 to email@example.com.
Enrollment forms can be found on the district's website, acpsd.net.
There are no additional fees to participate in Aiken Innovate, just the annual student registration fee.
The school district is also reminding parents and guardians to register children for the upcoming school year as soon as possible. Registration can be completed online at acpsd.net.
To register, a parent or guardian will still need to provide two documents that provide proof of residency. Prior to beginning registration, collect proof of residency documents. These documents can be scanned and uploaded during the registration process. Any PDF, Word, JPG or picture file may be uploaded.
Acceptable documents supporting proof of residency include: mortgage contract or statement, S.C. driver's license or ID card, property tax bill or receipt, utility bill (electric, water or gas), cable/satellite, internet or telephone bill, homeowner's/renter's insurance policy, or notarized letter from landlord.
People in the Belvedere community and beyond were able to receive free COVID-19 testing Thursday, July 9, during Aiken Regional Medical Centers' drive-thru testing event.
"Mainly it's for the community, to support the community," said Diana Gurley, laboratory director at the hospital, of the testing.
"We know a lot of the community are concerned about themselves, their family members, we want to make sure we can do whatever we can to help provide everybody a safe environment and this is the best way to do that, so it's been a very good thing for Aiken Regional to do for the community."
She said July 9 the hospital had the ability to test up to around 650 people during the event.
The hospital administered 550 tests total, according to Ashlee Brewer, director of marketing for the hospital.
Cars wrapped around Belvedere First Baptist Church, where the event took place. People stayed in their vehicles for registration while students from Aiken Technical College administered the tests. There was a walk-up site available.
Nyasia Myers was one of the many people in line July 9 to get tested. She said the pandemic has affected her life – she lost her job because of it.
Myers is pregnant, and because of that her immune system is weak, she said.
"I have symptoms of it, but I'm not sure," she said, adding she has been coughing and sneezing.
Gurley said it's important for people to know if they are positive for COVID-19.
"We want to make sure that everybody is practicing social distancing and things of that nature, but the people that know they're positive, it's very, very important that they know their social responsibility to practice social distancing," she said.
Eric Muhlbaier, administrative director of support services at the hospital, said when the hospital chooses locations for events, they want to find somewhere that is easy to get in and out of and somewhere people can walk to if needed.
Muhlbaier mentioned that area code 29841, which encompasses part of North Augusta and Belvedere, is the zip code that has, and has had for a long time, the highest number of positive COVID-19 cases.
The hospital has held other events around the county, including on Aiken's Northside and in Graniteville – also on July 9, a testing event was held in Wagener by the Medical University of South Carolina and one in Beech Island was held by Rural Health Services, Inc.
Gurley said Aiken Regional Medical Centers provides results
within a week of the testing event.
Community Ministries of North Augusta was also at the event providing free bags of food to those who came through the line. Executive Director Elizabeth Merritt said the event was an opportunity for the organization to advertise their services.
CMONA is made up of local churches and provides assistance to low-income individuals and families.
"Of course, COVID-19 is a huge need time for folks," Merritt said.
"People have lost jobs, have had hours cut, so there are a lot of folks who need help right now who have never had to ask for help before, so it's a way to tell people 'Hey we're here. If you need food, if you need financial assistance, we may be able to help.'"