Special Education teachers pic

Many questions regarding face-to-face or virtual instruction may cloud the upcoming school year but teaching the students isn’t one of them. Special Education teachers, as well as general teachers are learning about curriculums that will offer both digital and face-to face components. The first day of school for the Williamsburg County School District is planned for September 8, barring no further changes. 

Photo by Michaele Duke

Governor says give parents the choice to send their child back to school or go virtual

Superintendents from South Carolina’s 79 districts will decide whether or not to open their classrooms. During a July 15, media briefing, Governor Henry McMaster said going back to school is not a one-size-fits-all so parents need a choice to go virtual or go to school.

Department of Education Superintendent Molly Spearman did not attend; however, McMaster said Spearman would direct public schools to submit their reopening plans for review and approval by Friday, July 17. McMaster directed Spearman not to approve any plan that does not offer parents the choice that would allow their child to have face-to-face classroom instruction.

Williamsburg County Superintendent Dr. Rose Wilder, along with other superintendents across the state, asked for an extension on the deadline. Wilder had the district’s plan ready before the deadline but is making changes to face-to-face instruction. She said beginning Monday, July 20, the leadership team comprised of the curriculum department, principals, assistant principals, and directors of the district would go back and review parents’ survey responses. Over 700 parents responded and the majority of parents wanted virtual. “What we need to do now is review what face-to-face model we’re going to use,” said Dr. Wilder.

One of her greatest concerns is who decides who will teach face-to-face and who will teach virtual. The fairest way to do that, she said, is to offer alternate teaching. “I want to be fair to the teachers and at the same time make sure the students have a continuous quality education,” she said. Wilder said the technology department is working on a model where a teacher can actually be isolated in her classroom and teach lessons, which is very similar to ETV’s format.

Not every child has Internet but that is about to change. The State Department of Education is assisting communities without Internet services or hot spots. There are 22 districts, Williamsburg County is one, that will receive top priority to fill those hot spots. The areas most lacking in service are Greeleyville, Hemingway and Salters. The Internet service will be basic and only for educational purposes. Dr. Wilder said they will make the July 27, deadline for the order and the services should be ready by the district’s first day of school scheduled for September 8. 

Dr. Wilder’s other concern is the fact that Williamsburg County has become a hot spot for the virus. “We’ve got to make certain that we have proper protocols in place to make certain that we are protecting our students as well as our staff,” she said “My biggest fear is an outbreak in one of the schools. What happens then? Who’s libel?”

Several former CDC officials and others believe in-person learning is critical to a child’s well-being. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has stated the importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020. “Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation,” the organization says. 

Some key principles provided by the AAP include flexible school policies in responding to new information and being able to develop strategies that can be revised and adapted depending on the level of viral transmission in the school and throughout the community and done with close communication with state and/or local public health authorities and recognizing the differences between school districts, including urban, suburban, and rural districts.

Beth Phibbs, Executive Director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators (SCASA), voiced her is concerned. “School administrators, teachers, and school staff members are anxious to have students return to school on a regular schedule,” said Phibbs in a press release. “As professionals, we know firsthand the important role our public schools play in the educational, emotional, and physical wellbeing of our children. However, our concern for the health and safety of our students and staff is—and will always be—our first and foremost priority. Our children are South Carolina’s most precious resource, and our members will continue to follow the recommendations of local, state, and federal health agencies as we work to safely and successfully open schools.”

While the Palmetto State Teachers Association applauded Governor McMaster’s call for districts to move back their scheduled start date until after Labor Day, the association believes that if health conditions do not improve, it would be irresponsible and dangerous to require a return to full in-person instruction. In a press release the association said, “We believe this action would needlessly jeopardize the health and safety of our state’s 800,000 students and more than 50,000 teachers. According to DHEC, there were 16 positive cases of COVID-19 in our state on March 16, the first day that all schools in South Carolina were closed by order of the Governor. Recently, DHEC reported 2,205 positive cases in our state - a 13,681% increase in positive cases compared to March 16. While we know more now than we did in March about how COVID-19 is spread and contained, the current rate of spread of COVID-19 in our state makes a return to full in-person instruction far more dangerous than it was when the Governor ordered schools to close in March.” Since the press release, those cases have climbed to 69,765 and 1,138 deaths.

Though members of PSTA want to return to in-person instruction at the earliest possible time, they said the continued high rate of spread of the coronavirus poses a significant, and potentially deadly, health risk for students and staff. “As a result, our organization strongly agrees with Senator (Harvey) Peeler’s statement that what we need is a “safe return” to school. In order to achieve that safe return, we believe districts should follow the recommendations of the AccelerateED task force. According to that report, schools should operate in a distance learning model as long as the rate of spread of COVID-19, as measured by DHEC, is “high” in a county. Currently, 45 of our 46 counties fall into that category. We hope that our state leaders will take the steps necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our state. Once we achieve that goal, a return to in-person instruction is what is best for students and desired by teachers. Until that time, such an action needlessly endangers the health of our state’s most precious resource - our children.”

Those precious resources also include children with disabilities. In a statement, Able SC, an organization led by people with disabilities, wish to see a plan that considers the input of people with disabilities, parents, students, educators, and health professionals—all who have expertise on the subject matter. “What we see currently is a lack of consideration of these perspectives, which is putting all South Carolinians at risk.” 

The organization commended the SC Department of Education and the Office of Special Education Services, “South Carolina has an opportunity here to lead innovation of quality virtual and accessible education without putting the lives of students, families, and school personnel in danger. We were encouraged by the leadership within the SC Department of Education and districts, and we know quality, accessible virtual education is possible until schools are safe to reopen. Able SC is committed to providing any assistance possible to ensure the lives of all South Carolinians with disabilities are being considered and valued in all plans.”