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Richland One To Begin School Year Virtually — Despite McMaster’s Request

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Richland County School District One officials presented a plan Tuesday to begin the 2020-2021 school year virtually as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in South Carolina.

The board did not vote on the plan in Tuesday night’s meeting. However, the plan that gives parents two options for students’ learning this year will be submitted to the South Carolina Department of Education.

The board voted to move the student start date to Aug. 31.

Richland One’s plan offers parents two choices, which both begin with virtual learning (shown below).

Richland One

The first option offers a phase-in program, which starts out with all students learning virtually as Richland County is in the “high risk” category for COVID-19 with more than 20 percent of tests resulting in positive cases.

When the spread of COVID-19 (hopefully) slows down and Richland County moves into the “medium risk” category — with between 5.5 and 9.9 percent positive tests — the district would move to a hybrid model where younger students go back to the classroom a few days a week.

As of July 20, Richland County had a 23.4 percent positive rate.

If the science continues to show that it is safer for younger children to go back to school, kindergarten through fifth grade students would return to the classroom with staggering start times during “phase 2.”

Witherspoon said that SCDHEC releases county-by-county ratings every two weeks and the district “will never stop preparing” to transition between the phases.

For Richland One to transition to phase 3, where middle and high school students would go to school a couple days a week and younger students to full time in-person learning, Richland County would need 5 percent or less percent positive of all COVID-19 tests.

With this plan, there is a chance that middle and high school students will not experience face-to-face learning at all this school year — depending entirely on Richland County’s COVID-19 numbers.

Richland One school officials stressed that the virtual learning will be different from the spring and more rigorous. Attendance will be taken daily.

Parents also have a choice with this plan to keep their children at home and learning virtually throughout the entire school year.

The school district will be releasing a 40-page Richland One opening guide soon, Dr. Craig Witherspoon said in the board meeting Tuesday.

Richland One is the fifth-largest school district in the state, with 22,000 students and an annual budget of $337,458,642.

Last week, Gov. Henry McMaster asked that South Carolina school districts give parents an option to choose between in-person, five-day schooling or continue virtual learning for their children this fall — and he strongly encouraged in-person learning.

“There is nothing more important we can do than educate the children of South Carolina,” McMaster said, stressing that virtual learning isn’t stacking up to in-classroom education. “We must take every step at our disposal to get teachers and students back in the classroom.”

S.C. public schools have been closed since March 16, when there were only 26 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state.

The majority of the 2,000 teachers and 16,000 parents surveyed by the district chose virtual learning as their No. 1 choice for learning this fall. District officials said Tuesday that Richland County has not met CDC requirements for safe face-to-face learning.

South Carolina has seen skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations this summer. As of Tuesday, 73,101 COVID-19 cases were reported and 1,593 South Carolinians have died from the virus.

Richland County has been a hotspot for COVID-19 throughout the pandemic with more than 6,300 cases and 112 deaths.

South Carolina’s COVID-19 hospitalizations have also increased dramatically in the last three weeks. On June 22, 731 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in SC. On Tuesday, the state reported that 1,550 coronavirus patients were hospitalized with COVID-19.

Commissioners Jonathan Milling and Beatrice King both raised concern in the meeting with the fact that board members did not get to vote on the plan, it was just decided by the administration.

Earlier this year, several South Carolina school districts adopted an emergency resolution which gives the school district chairman and superintendent the power to waive or suspend “provisions of existing policies, administrative procedures, and other rules” related to Gov. Henry McMasters COVID-19 executive order.  Read more on that resolution here and here.

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