County schools may scale back reopenings
By Bobby Bryant
On July 13, the Darlington County school board and county education superintendent Tim Newman stood united behind the goal of reopening public schools Sept. 8, with in-person classes five days a week.
But it now appears that goal may be out of reach for the county school district, and school officials might have to scale down some of their hopes for a fall semester that would be as normal as possible given the massive dilemmas posed by COVID-19.
During an Aug. 17 school board work session, officials discussed estimates that show there won’t be enough teachers to run in-person classes five days a week in the county’s middle and high schools while still maintaining a “social distance” of 6 feet around every student.
The district’s commitment to spreading out desks for a COVID-19 safety margin means much smaller classes per teacher. And even though 3,700 district students have enrolled in the district’s all-online, year-long Virtual Academy and won’t be attending classes in person, the district still expects more in-the-class students in middle and high schools than it has teachers to instruct them, while still maintaining a safe “social distance.”
“We’re trying to fit 15 pounds into a 5-pound sack,” Newman told the board last week.
“I want five days a week (of in-person classes) for all our students,” Newman added. But he said the district can’t compromise on 6 feet of “social distance” for each student at each desk.
One possible solution to the problem would be to have students divide their time between in-person classes and online instruction. Under this type of “hybrid” system, students might go to class Monday, Wednesday and Friday and stay home and take online classes Tuesday and Thursday, or some other variation of that. But it would mean giving up the district’s goal of in-person classes five days a week.
Some board members wondered if the district might have been reaching too high, considering the constantly changing threat of COVID-19.
“Are we really ready for face to face?” asked board member Charles Govan.
Board member Richard Brewer said the district should consider going all-online for the fall because, he said, switching back and forth between in-person and online could be confusing and stressful for teachers and students. Brewer also wondered if there was any way to bring in retired teachers to help out in classrooms, even if they only serve as aides and don’t do any teaching.
Board member Jamie Morphis expressed his concerns about online education being used long-term. “This scares me to death,” he said. Morphis said that if online-only students don’t have a lot of family support to keep them focused, they’re only going to get minimal benefits from computer classes.
Carla Jefferson, interim director of the district’s Virtual Academy, which will educate 37 percent of the district’s students this school year with online-only courses, defended online learning. “It’s different. We knew it was going to be an adjustment,” she said. But, she added, it can work well.
In an Aug. 14 video chat with parents, Newman said he was surprised by the number of students — about 3,700 — who have enrolled in the Virtual Academy. “I had, in my head, between 10 and 20 percent. There were other school districts that thought it would be as low as 5 percent. I think the highest I heard anybody predict was maybe 30 percent.”
In that video chat, carried on the district’s Facebook page, Newman touched on the prospects for fall football at Darlington County high schools. He said football was tentatively scheduled to resume Sept. 25, and other types of sports were also tentatively scheduled to resume this fall. But Newman said this is entirely dependent on the COVID-19 situation.