Darlington County schools delay in-person classes
By Bobby Bryant
School will still resume Sept. 8 for the Darlington County School District, but classes will be online-only for at least the first two weeks.
District officials had been prepping for most students to physically come back to school the day after Labor Day – “social-distancing” classrooms, stocking up on sanitizer, ordering tens of thousands of cloth face masks to help protect kids from COVID-19, the virus that shuttered the county’s schools in March.
But the final decision was always going to hinge on the county’s COVID-19 numbers, and the numbers weren’t where they needed to be on Aug. 24, when the county school board held a special called meeting to decide exactly how to reopen the schools.
“We are still ‘high’ in Darlington County,” based on state health department data, a face-masked county Education Superintendent Tim Newman told the face-masked board.
“It’s better than it was the previous week,” Newman said. “Our numbers are coming down. The state numbers are coming down. … Numbers in Darlington County, unfortunately, are not coming down as quick as the rest of the state is.”
“Given the fact that those numbers are still high,” Newman continued, “it would be my recommendation that we start off the school year in an ‘eLearning’ format for our regular students, and of course, we have the Virtual Academy that will start as well. But again, all ‘eLearning’ for the first two weeks. …”
For students in grades 9-12, the school year begins Sept. 8. First day for kids in grades K-8 will “vary,” the DCSD says.
The board voted unanimously to back Newman’s recommendation. (Board member Jamie Morphis was absent and did not vote.) School officials will re-evaluate the numbers every two weeks and decide whether the district can move closer to its goal of in-person classes, five days a week, for all grade levels.
What does all this mean for DCSD students?
If you are one of the 3,700 students already enrolled in the district’s Virtual Academy, a specialized online-only program of courses, nothing changes for you. You weren’t planning to attend school in person to begin with.
If you are one of the 6,300 students who were planning to be able to start the school year in person, in a classroom, this puts you in a different world, at least for a few weeks. Basically, it will be similar to the eLearning system the school district used for all students during the spring semester, but DCSD spokeswoman Audrey Childers said that’s been improved over the summer.
The DCSD says parents and students “can expect eLearning to be vastly different than the emergency distance learning implemented this past spring. Teachers will engage with students regularly and post live and recorded lessons, as well as monitor student attendance, progress and course engagement through online hubs, such as SeeSaw and Schoology.”
Some parents have pointed out that they don’t have reliable Internet access. The district says it is working to find solutions for that.
If and when the county moves out of DHEC’s “high” spectrum, Newman recommends that the district use in-person, five-days-a-week classes for elementary schools and a mixed schedule of in-person and online learning for middle and high schools. (One reason for this is a logistical problem the board faced earlier: “Social-distancing” all classrooms is going to spread out classes to the extent there won’t be enough teachers in middle and high schools.)
Board member Wanda Hassler said: “I want nothing more than our students to get back to five days a week, face to face. … But we’ve got to be able to do it safely. I’m just asking the citizens of Darlington County to make this commitment to do what is necessary to slow down the spread of this virus in our county so we can get our students back.”
“We need everyone’s help out there,” board chairman Warren Jeffords said. “Wear your mask. I know I’m probably as guilty as anyone, but I wear one sometimes. Social distance, we need to wear our mask, so we can get back to a normal high school (life).”
“I feel really good about the decision that our board has made,” Newman told reporters. “They put a lot of time and effort into this process.”
One issue that remains unresolved is if, and when, Darlington County’s high schools can resume fall football.
“Athletics, of course, is in question right now,” Newman said at last week’s board meeting. “We are in a high-spread (COVID-19) environment – I cannot recommend doing anything other than what we are currently doing,” which is observing, for most sports, “Phase 1.5” of the S.C. High School League’s guidelines.
That means, in its most basic sense, that student athletes can condition, with limited practicing, but they can’t compete, said DCSD spokesman Chris McKagen. Again, whether and when this might change depends on the COVID-19 numbers.