Amid protests, and after hours of discussion, the Aiken County School Board has decided to proceed with its intended proposal of a hybrid model of learning for when schools reopen in the fall, a system that incorporates both distance and in-person learning for students in the public school system due to coronavirus concerns.
The atmosphere in the district's office on Brookhaven Drive was grim July 21 as board members were forced to consider, essentially, two dueling risk factors presented during the meeting's public participation period – the loss of education and essential services provided by schools or the loss of life.
Board Chair Keith Liner said the board did not intend to change their proposal, which Aiken County Schools Superintendent King Laurence said was still the recommendation supported by the district's Back to School Task Force.
"We believe ... that in most cases, we'll be able to follow social distancing and other recommendations from the CDC, DHEC and other groups," Laurence said.
The meeting was delayed for about 40 minutes due to wireless issues in the district office, which interrupted the meeting’s livestreaming process during the first part of the public comment period.
Under the current proposal, the hybrid model of learning proposal would have 50% of students attend in-person classes Mondays and Tuesdays, with the remaining 50% being in schools Wednesdays and Thursdays. Fridays will be reserved for sanitation of school facilities, lesson planning, and virtual office hours for teachers.
The district will also offer full-time remote learning for students through the district's virtual platform, Aiken Innovate, for students of all grade levels.
The first day of school in Aiken County is planned for Aug. 17. The board also took a vote on delaying the start of school until Sept. 8, put forth by board member Cameron Nuessle. The motion failed 4-3, with two board members abstaining.
Board members Patrice Rhinehart Jackson, Cameron Nuessle and Dr. John Bradley voted in approval of the motion to delay the start of school, with board members Keith Liner, Brian Silas, Jason Crane and Dwight Smith dissenting.
Board members Sandra Shealey and Barry Moulton could not vote on the measure, as they were attending the meeting remotely.
The board has until Friday to submit the plans for reopening to S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman.
A deadline extension was requested by the board after S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and some other state lawmakers called upon districts to offer five-day, in-person learning (essentially reopening schools at maximum capacity in the fall) on July 17 – two days before S.C. school districts were required to present their reopening plans to Spearman.
The Aiken County School Board previously voted to adopt a hybrid model of learning on July 16, less than a day before McMaster's remarks were made during a press conference. The July 21 meeting was held in response to McMaster's statements so the board could reevaluate their reopening plans.
It was a decision many board members said was not easy to make.
"We’ve been put in a very difficult position," said Jason Crane. "We’re being asked to make the impossible decision, which was, in my opinion, made more difficult by the changing goal post announced on Wednesday by the governor.”
Some raised concerns about health risks in schools for both teachers and students if classes were to resume in person full time.
"I don’t want to take the risk of throwing everybody back into school and seeing what happens," Bradley said. "I don’t want the death of a child on my conscience."
Parents, teachers speak about reopening concerns
Before the meeting, protesters gathered in the parking lot to speak out against returning to a traditional model of learning – which would involve schools operating at maximum capacity five days a week.
Teachers outside the ACPSD building broadly supported virtual instruction and hybrid models for the fall. Many of the protesters called for a hybrid model in which schools would open at 33% capacity instead of 50%, which some of them incorporated into their protest signs and chants.
Among the protesters calling for a 33% model was Scott Ayers, a history teacher at New Ellenton Middle School who drove a hearse to the protest.
Ayers hung a sign on the hearse’s windshield that said, “Bus transport is not the only issue.”
“We talk about buses being at 50%,” Ayers said, standing next to the hearse. “If we do not do this at a safe 33% model, which was originally discussed, a lot of teachers and parents and educators are concerned this (the hearse) is what’s going to be driving a student instead of a bus one day.”
Juliane Taylor, an English teacher at Aiken High School, said she would prefer virtual teaching but would be happy to return to school with a 33% hybrid model.
“We were all really shocked to hear Gov. McMaster say that students should be given the option of five days a week, in person at a time when everything in science tells us that that is a bad idea,” Taylor said.
Taylor said she finds online teaching much harder but believes it is the right thing to do.
Another educator who disagreed with the 50% model is Carina McGee, an English teacher at Aiken High School. McGee said she is concerned it would not be logistically possible to keep students 6 feet apart if they attend school at 50% capacity.
Besides the issue of students attending seven different class periods, McGee said students may have difficulty keeping physical distance while they go to their lockers or talk with their friends.
At a prior school board meeting, McGee mentioned writing the first draft of her will. McGee, who is in her early 20s, said it was heartbreaking to write, but she might be facing a situation where she is likely to catch the virus.
“As much as I want things to go back to normal, if it goes back to normal too quickly, we’re just going to have to shut it all down again,” McGee said.
McGee said she trusted that the school board would take the protestors’ perspectives into consideration, and she hopes the community will proceed with caution.
For Valerie Walker, an English teacher at A. L. Corbett Middle School, safety was a primary concern. She hoped to make sure her students would be safe and that the work environment would be safe.
“I have seen the numbers of COVID going up and getting closer for school to open, and so we are very concerned,” Walker said. “Even though we do want to go back to see our kids again, but we’re also concerned about our own safety and especially the safety of our kids.”
Bethany Ross, a second grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary, also expressed concern about safety. She said she teaches young kids who might not wear their masks and maintain social distance.
“I feel like the board members may not be taking into consideration the science behind the spreading of COVID-19 and how abundant it is in our state right now, versus the want for having schools back open,” Ross said.
Ross was also concerned about whether the schools would have enough cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment and what might happen if a teacher or student catches the virus and spreads it further at home and in the community.
“It’s a problem for literally everybody,” Ross said.
Mark Rich, a social studies teacher at Schofield Middle School, said he is concerned for students and teachers who have health problems.
“I don’t know that they are being adequately looked at by our state government,” Rich said.
Tiffany Benward, a single mother, spoke against schools reopening in-person classes five days a week during the public comment period of the meeting.
"My daughter graduates this year," Benward said. "If she goes to school and she gets sick, she is going to bring it home to the only parents who is working to put food on the table?"
Samantha Cheatham, program director at the Boys and Girls Club of Aiken, was in support of schools resuming traditional learning full time. Cheatham said she has seen the effects of distance learning on students who cannot obtain broadband access at home.
“I’m on the front line of those children who don’t necessarily have the means and technology to complete the distance learning packages because they don’t have internet at home, they don’t have laptops or they don’t have the parents who are actually able to help them,” Cheatham said.
Scott Patterson, a parent of three teenage girls, claimed the loss of in-person schooling had negatively impacted all of his children, especially his youngest daughter.
"I just think it needs to be an option,” Patterson said. "The parents can decide whether they’re comfortable sending their kids to school."