COLUMBIA, S.C. — State and local education officials are still trying to determine how to return South Carolina students to school in several weeks — whether in person or online — as COVID-19 cases spike across the state.
Clemson University announced Wednesday that all students will start classes virtually on Aug. 19, with in-person classroom learning delayed until Sept. 17.
And for younger students, education officials promised the new school year in public schools would be nothing like what happened in March when the virus caused the sudden closings of buildings as teachers and administrators scrambled to implement online learning in days.
Attendance will be taken every day and there will be academic standards just like a normal school year, state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman told a small group of House members Wednesday.
“The expectations will be much higher — that students must be engaged every day,” Spearman said.
There has been no summer vacation for Spearman and local school administrators across the state as they try to revamp decades of education norms, such as classes of 20 or 30 students, buses full of children and even recess.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases continue to climb. For more than a month, South Carolina has been in the top four states for newly diagnosed cases adjusted by population.
And as the virus continues to spread, deaths are mounting. South Carolina has averaged nearly 33 deaths a day over the past two weeks. The same average 14 days ago was 15 deaths per day.
Hospital beds are filling, with only about one in eight beds in the state open. About 19% of those beds have COVID-19 patients, according to the state Department of Heath and Environmental Control.
Clemson University President Jim Clements said he delayed the university’s in-person start because of the spike in cases. He said university modeling shows the school could have thousands of cases of COVID-19 if it opened now and that the school can reassess bringing students back closer to Labor Day.
The decision is independent of what happens with the school’s football team, which at the moment still plans to start the season Sept. 3 at Georgia Tech.
“The virus seems to be peaking right now,” Clements said in a news conference held online. “Hopefully that trends down in the next couple of weeks.”
University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen told a town hall that the school still plans to begin in-person classes on Aug. 20. All students will be given a mask and required to wear them in classes.
Amid the escalating cases and as local school districts finalized carefully considered plans, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster used his power to strongly encourage schools to offer in-person classes five days a week to any student.
Spearman, who was elected independently, disagreed with McMaster’s idea.
With the Sept. 8 deadline to start the school year looming, Spearman, whose office has the final say on the reopening plans of all the state's more than 80 districts, said she hopes to approve the first batch of those plans this week.
Spearman told the House COVID-19 Public Education Committee that teams of her employees are reviewing everything from social distancing and cleaning guidelines to how to handle special education students to what happens when a student or teacher is diagnosed with COVID-19.
“It’s something you have to read and then reread,” Deputy Superintendent David Mathis said.
While Spearman disagreed with the governor about five days a week school, she said there is one non-negotiable item that has to be in every plan — districts must give children a chance to get to school in person to meet teachers, even if they choose an all-virtual school year.
“I still want the schools to lay eyes on children at least once,” Spearman said.
Districts are proposing a wide range of plans. Some will allow students to attend five days a week of in person classes. Others are starting with all online learning except possibly a day to come and pick up a school-offered computer and meet teachers in person.
Many districts are going with plans to split students into groups and have them attend a day or two a week, with virtual learning other days.
Lawmakers largely praised Spearman and education officials Wednesday for their flexibility and their dedication to student safety, both when the pandemic started and throughout the summer as the virus worsened.
“You can’t learn — none of this other stuff is important — if you aren’t safe,” said Rep. Wendy Brawley, a Democrat from Richland County.
Rep Terry Alexander asked Spearman to also work on making sure teachers feel safe and appreciated for going back to school.
“I want them to come back safely too. But I want them to come back safely with confidence,” said Alexander, a Democrat from Florence.
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