By Ruben Lowman and Andrea Maestre
Gov. Henry McMaster made the announcement last Wednesday that all K-12 schools in the state will be closed for the remainder of the school year. The governor, accompanied by State Superintendent Molly Spearman, decided to extend his previous executive orders closing schools through March and April in order to combat the spread of COVID-19.
“The decision we have made after much consultation with a comprehensive group of people, including parents and teachers, administrators, health experts and otherwise, we decided not to reopen schools for the rest of the school year,” McMaster said.
The governor also expressed gratitude towards school faculty for keeping schools functional and making education engaging for students, and to parents for helping teachers implement and execute their lesson plans. “It is remarkable to see the effort, the highly successful effort. I’ve never seen anything like it. A lot of thought and effort went into it.”
Spearman reiterated the sentiment, saying that “It’s been sad to see schools close, but it has been a joy to see how people have pulled together for the benefit of our children.”
The officials were quick to reassure that even though schools will remain closed, eLearning is still taking place and students are responsible for completing their coursework just as they normally would. Spearman explained to teachers that they did not have to go easy on grades, but a certain amount of “common sense” should be applied to students who are struggling but are making an effort.
Overall, distance learning has been working well but Spearman acknowledged that it has been challenging for children who lack access to the internet. She said the “digital divide in South Carolina has become very apparent,” as around 25 percent of the school districts in the state are not participating in online learning.
In an attempt to remedy this, the Department of Education has been sending out school buses equipped with WiFi for students who do not have internet access to use. These buses were introduced to schools around Horry County two weeks ago, with WiFi also being made available in the school parking lots.
The governor and state superintendent also stressed that local districts would have ample flexibility and control coordinating how they end the school year, such as when students are allowed to drop their textbooks, school computers and other learning materials back off at school. Spearman also said that educators are devising an “organized way” for students to come and pick up any personal items left at school.
Additionally, Governor McMaster recognized that graduation ceremonies are an integral and special “part of American life” and said that he is supportive of local districts getting creative to find ways to conduct them safely.
The subject of graduation ceremonies has been a contentious one all over the country and that has been no different here on the Grand Strand. Horry County Schools initially announced that virtual graduations would take place, until they received a wave of negative feedback from parents and students. Horry County Superintendent Rick Maxey said the district was weighing up alternative ideas instead. “The high school principals can put together a menu of what that looks like.”
HCS also announced last week they will be resuming their free student meal program, set to continue this week until May 8. The program had been suspended the past two weeks after several district employees tested positive for coronavirus, including one in North Myrtle Beach. It will now be run in partnership with the Army National Guard, Operation BBQ Relief and the South Carolina Department of Education. Operation BBQ Relief is a non-profit that provides food aid during natural disaster situations.
County officials held an emergency virtual meeting on Monday night, where they discussed a wide range of topics concerning the end of this school year and the beginning of next, including coursework, the budget and what to do about graduation. While that decision is expected to come soon, in the meantime officials are asking schools in the county to honor the class of 2020 by turning their stadium lights on for 20 minutes this Friday at 8:20 p.m.
Officials also said that employees will be paid on their current salary schedule and that they anticipate state leaders will pass a resolution and address next year’s budget in the fall.
Here in North Myrtle Beach, Ocean Drive Elementary Principal Renea Fowler expressed her support for the governor’s order closing schools, saying, “We miss our students greatly but our number one priority is their safety.”
She said that while it has been a complex and demanding process to implement and carry out everyday, it has been rewarding to see the community come together over their childrens’ education.
“The eLearning experience has been different but we have embraced it, and been very successful and pleased,” she said. “We have a high percentage of students who have turned in their work, either digitally or through paper-and-pencil methods.”
Fowler said the feedback she has received from parents has been overwhelmingly positive and understanding of what a difficult job teachers do on a daily basis, but especially at this moment. She said many parents are realizing how challenging educating their own children is and have even more admiration now for teachers.
She hopes that students can go back to normal and into classrooms in the fall “but if we have to adjust we’ll do so accordingly as to what our governor dictates.”
She took the opportunity to share some words of wisdom we all need to keep in mind. “It’s important that everyone remembers we’re all in different boats but we’re all going through the same storm.”