Board aims to reopen schools Sept. 8 But COVID-19 could upend plans, keep students home with online classes
By Bobby Bryant
Sept. 8 is the target date for Darlington County’s public schools to reopen – but everything depends on how hard COVID-19 hits the county between now and then.
On July 13, the county school board – masked and “socially distanced” – unanimously endorsed Education Superintendent Tim Newman’s plan for a careful and cautious return to in-person classes Sept. 8, a pushback from the Aug. 10/17 dates he had been considering.
Before the board met, a small group of parents and another group of teachers assembled outside to push for keeping all county schools closed for safety. On the day the board met for the crucial vote, they learned that state health officials had bumped up Darlington County from “medium” to “high” risk for COVID-19.
The county school district’s reopening plan is deliberately a little vague so that officials can react fast to changing conditions. If all goes as school officials hope, Darlington County’s public schools might be able to operate five days a week with strict social distancing, smaller classes and face-mask use.
Or it might only be possible for the district to do three-day weeks. Or two days. Or none.
The Darlington County School District is setting up a “virtual academy” – a rigorous, all-day, all-week online-learning system that students can enroll in for the entire school year even if officials succeed in reopening the schools. Officials describe the virtual academy as a much more robust version of the “emergency” online-learning system students used from the school shutdowns in March until the end of the semester.
If the COVID-19 pandemic worsens to the point that officials can’t risk in-person classes, all students in the district would go to online learning and the schools would stay shuttered. (See story below for more on the virtual academy.)
School-board members seemed both relieved and anxious about finally setting a restart date. They emphasized that the COVID-19 situation is changing not just by the day, but virtually by the hour.
“Two weeks ago, I felt pretty good about being in school on (Aug. 17),” Newman told the board. “ … I talked to other superintendents; they felt good about that. Each week that’s gone by, I have felt less good about that. … Two weeks ago, I was inclined to start earlier … but the data has changed; the science has changed.”
And it may keep changing. “We may be in and out of school this whole school year,” Newman told the board. He added that anxiety among students and teachers was normal: “I’ve yet to eat in a restaurant since all this started. … It’s OK to have fears.”
“This is unprecedented for anyone,” board member Wanda Hassler said. “ … We’re getting information that’s coming in to us like a fire hose, and we’re trying to drink out of this fire hose.”
If everyone works together, she said, we can get through this.
“This was not an easy decision,” Hassler said. “ … We’ve got a decision now – it may change tomorrow! – but right now, we have a decision, and I think it’s one we can all get behind.”
Board chairman Warren Jeffords said: “I think we’re all on the same page. I think we made a good decision. Like (board member) Leigh Anne (Kelley) said, everyone’s not going to agree with it. I don’t expect them to.”
Gov. Henry McMaster, who ordered all S.C. public schools closed in March, has been pushing for districts to reopen their schools to traditional, in-person classes. He says online learning is simply not as good as in-person classes, and points to the fact that S.C. school districts have lost contact with thousands of students since switching to online learning.