By Ruben Lowman
During a virtual board meeting held on Monday, June 13, Horry County Schools (HCS) officials announced they would be delaying the beginning of the upcoming school year by three weeks as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The 2020-21 school year will officially begin on Tuesday, Sept. 8. There will be 180 days on the calendar and the last day of school is scheduled to be June 16.
HCS Chairman Ken Richardson had previously stated that he intended to push back the start date to give him and his reopening task force more time to evaluate and proceed with more certainty surrounding the recent increase in positive cases within the county.
He stated the aim is to protect students and faculty and reopen schools safely, no matter if the start date has to be moved back or if the county is forced to rely more on distance learning than they had anticipated.
“As your chairman of HCS I have a goal to get all students back in the classrooms in person as soon as it’s safe to do so,” Richardson said.
During the nearly four-hour meeting the county’s reopening task force addressed each aspect of the complexities involving opening and operating the school buildings themselves in the midst of a highly infectious virus, along with the potential risks that could arise to students, parents and faculty.
Richardson was adamant that the decisions facing the county should be theirs to make, without intervention from state or federal officials.
“The one thing I don’t want anybody doing, at the state or federal level, is I don’t want anybody trying to tell us when we’re going to put our people back in schools,” Richardson said.
The reopening task force consists of five separate subcommittees made up of district principals and administrators, along with area teachers, parents and students, each responsible for formulating and coordinating the aspects relevant to their category – public health and safety, school operations and logistics, teaching and learning, equity and family-needs and socio-emotional health.
They released their proposed reopening plans following the meeting and intend to have them finalized and submitted to the state for approval by July 27 at the latest.
Their guidelines take the recommendations outlined by Gov. Henry McMaster’s AcceleratEd Task Force into consideration with the specific needs of Horry County’s various school districts. North Myrtle Beach High School English teacher Jennifer Wells represents our area on the public health and safety subcommittee.
One key to how exactly schools will be reopened safely is what the overall incidence rate for each district is. According to data released by DHEC on Monday, Horry County was second-highest in South Carolina with a 796.2 cases per 100,000 people rate over the past few weeks and seventh-highest in the state with a percent positive rate of over 25 percent. These numbers have both been increasing over the past several weeks.
DHEC’s metrics for recent virus activity within the state show that of all 46 counties in South Carolina only Marlboro County would be recommended for a hybrid learning plan, which includes a mix of both traditional classroom and virtual education. The rest of the state only reaches the threshold for distance learning only, using the guidelines laid out by the governor’s task force.
Horry County’s Reopening Plan would see many of the protocols the state recommended be put into place in schools in this area.
Faculty members and students would be strongly encouraged to carry out a routine check-up on themselves everyday before coming to school. During the meeting officials said it would not be logistically feasible to perform temperature checks when students and employees arrived because of the vast amount of time it would require.
Richardson also said that right now how a situation would be resolved regarding a staff member testing positive is not known, and the county will use the next three weeks to develop protocol for when these situations inevitably arise.
HCS officials said that they would like to create a tracing system for COVID-19, have a room strictly to use for when asymptotic individuals are identified and would require those with symptoms to quarantine until they are symptom-free.
Mask-wearing would be made mandatory for all district employees. While remaining voluntary for students, school officials would strongly encourage them to be in use by everyone while on school premises. This was the most contentious issue of the meeting, with some members expressing their belief that keeping it voluntary for students defeats the purpose of anyone wearing them.
Aspects of the reopening plan address placing signs on school premises similar to the ones on businesses and government buildings, alerting everyone of the social distancing and safety measures in place while inside. The plan would also see students start their school days by going to classrooms directly, with convening in cafeterias or gyms before class not permitted.
The district would also see safety measures in place for properly cleaning and disinfecting the buildings, distancing guidelines for students in classrooms and discouraging students from bringing any unnecessary supplies to school and sharing them with other students. There would also be a limit on visitors into school buildings, mostly for clubs and speakers.
Students would be required to eat lunch in their classrooms to avoid large gatherings, and school buses would only run at 50 percent capacity with family members seated next to each other and seats beside the drivers remaining vacant. County officials have contacted the USDA asking to make lunch free for all students in the district and are waiting to hear back.
As part of the research conducted to inform their reopening plans, the task force surveyed parents and faculty members and nearly 70 percent of parents would rather see children educated under a hybrid learning plan if it is impossible to return students to school five days a week. A majority of parents would also have their children avoid riding the bus. Staff members surveyed showed around two-thirds of respondents see no issue with wearing a mask, while three in five school employees felt it would be difficult to enforce social distancing among students.
Richardson said he would be attending school each day with educators and students when schools reopen. “I promise the parents right now, when I send the kids back to school I’m going to be there with them. The first month, I’m going to be at a school every day, all day long, from bell to bell.”
Per state law, the five days assigned for the LEAP program for students needing help with their previous year’s online learning must be completed before the start of the next year. Those days will be Aug. 20 and 21 and Aug. 24-26. Staff development days will follow on Aug. 27, 28, 31 and between Sept. 1-4 for new and returning teachers to train and be educated on the safety measures the district will be implementing going forward.
“If it looks like we are going to have to go to distance learning and not traditional, it gets me three extra weeks to work with our teachers for teacher development,” said Richardson.