When Sumter returns to five-day, face-to-face instruction Monday, it will be one of the last districts in South Carolina to do so, according to state Department of Education data.
Ryan Brown, chief communications officer with the state department, spoke Thursday and also said the agency plans to require everyone to offer in-person classes five days a week next year since flexibility from regulations is not expected to be allowed.
After stops and starts of hybrid/blending learning because of surges in virus cases marked the fall semester and January, Sumter School District was one of about 20 districts in the state to return to its hybrid model for all students on Feb. 1. The hybrid model for districts has generally consisted of two to four days of face-to-face, classroom instruction.
On that date, only 28 of the 79 districts, or 35%, in South Carolina were offering a full, five-day, in-person instructional option, according to official data.
However, the number of districts returning to five-day, in-person instruction almost doubled to 54 districts during the next two months and by April 1 as Gov. Henry McMaster and state Superintendent Molly Spearman continued to emphasize that schools were "safe places" with proper mitigation efforts, such as face masks and social distancing measures.
Then, 18 more districts began five-day instruction on Monday - the first day following spring break for most schools - lifting the total to 72 districts (91%) with five-day, face-to-face options for students and parents, according to the state agency.
Throughout the persistent pandemic this school year, all districts have allowed parents to keep their children at home in virtual/online learning if they wanted to do so for safety reasons.
On Monday, Sumter will join three other districts in transitioning to offer its five-day, in-person model. The others include Orangeburg County School District, Florence School District 3 (Lake City) and Lexington 1 School District.
Then, three final districts will remain (Hampton School District 2, Colleton County and Greenville County), and all plan to transition one week later, on April 26. Greenville has operated five days, face to face, for K-8 and four days, face to face, for high school students for an extended period.
The April 26 date passed in a bill from the South Carolina House this week as a proposed deadline for school districts. The state Senate is expected to take up the measure next week.
On her behalf, Sumter School District Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox has maintained throughout the pandemic that safety for everyone involved has been her top priority and she has acted out of an abundance of caution.
She reiterated those comments Monday at the district's Board of Trustees' meeting in discussing Sumter's return to five-day instruction and thanked community members for their flexibility.
"While we know that none of the decisions we made are actually something that everyone agrees with," she said, "understand that what we've done is to ensure the safety and well-being of our children, staff and community."
The local district has tracked various virus indicators since mid-August. A spreadsheet tabulation, provided by the district spokeswoman, Shelly Galloway, shows the district averaged about 41 new COVID-19 cases among students and staff each week in January. That total dipped to about 20 new virus cases each week in February and 11 each week in March.
While local schools have been in hybrid, in-person learning this year, the district never had to close any schools temporarily due to any outbreaks in COVID-19. However, in January, while fully virtual, due to virus case counts and continuous staff quarantines due to exposure, staff at two schools (Crestwood High School and R.E. Davis College Preparatory Academy) had to work remotely from home for a brief period of time, the district said this week.
BACK TO STATE LEVEL
Given the year-long pandemic, school districts have been allowed to implement virtual and hybrid instruction models based on flexibility afforded to them by the state department to various statutes and regulations.
Ryan Brown, the state department spokesman, said the agency has informed districts those allowances are not expected to be allowed next year.
"We have already told districts that the flexibilities from statutes and regulations that we afforded them this year that allowed them to provide hybrid instruction will not be in place next year, " he said.
Also included in the House bill that passed Wednesday was a stipulation to require districts to offer in-person classes five days a week next school year, regardless of what happens with the COVID-19 pandemic.
State Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Manning, said Thursday that he thinks such a blanket requirement, regardless of the status of the pandemic, is not wise and will run into opposition from many.
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