COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Leaders in the AccelerateED task force laid out their recommendations Thursday for when and how school operations will resume in the fall as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
Their recommendations included different schedule models dependent on COVID-19 conditions, online and in-person preparation, as well as necessary steps districts must take before the school year begins.
“This is all about our students,” state Department of Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said to start the meeting. “And being able to give them the opportunities in school and extracurricular activities in a safe way.”
Instruction Subcommittee Chair Patrick Kelly introduced three schedule models for schools to consider based on the level of COVID-19 spread in the fall: Traditional, hybrid and full distance learning.
The full distance learning model would help districts in the event of a large spread of the virus. The task force recommends all school districts have a remote learning contingency plan set well before the school year to continue instruction from home if needed.
Kelly said schools should put an online or remote plan together now to create a smoother transition than that seen during the spring.
“We couldn’t get in front. We were just trying to triage and do the best we could. That can’t be the case in the fall,” Kelly said. “We’ve got time to plan now and distance learning affectively is going to look different than what we pulled off in the spring because we’ve got the time to get ready for it.”
The second model outlines guidance should a medium spread of the virus occur. Recommendations for a hybrid plan include splitting instruction times on alternate days, using an AM or PM schedule and introducing more distance learning where possible.
“It’s not going to be feasible to leave school schedules the way they are,” task force member Dr. Harrison Goodwin said.
The traditional model would be in the event of a low spread of the virus. Students could return with a number of changes to daily practices, like wearing masks if social distancing is unattainable, caps to class sizes, restructuring rooms and limiting interaction during transition and lunch periods.
“These are a snapshot in time,” Building and Student Services Chairman Alan Walter said. “So this is the conditions as of today and certainly that’s subject to change going forward.”
Water outlined numerous recommendations for schools to implement throughout their buildings. For example, evaluating social distancing during emergency drills, producing signage to communicate changes to staff and students, the potential use of face shields for teachers as well as developing cleaning protocols.
“Things are going to take longer. They are going to be more complicated,” Goodwin said. “But also I think we’ve got to hammer home that it’s going to cost more.”
In addition to other changes, Operations Subcommittee Chairman Dr. Scott Turner presented ideas for new transportation protocols. He said buses should only carry a maximum of 50 percent capacity with assigned seating and cleaning schedules.
The task force also recommends schools take surveys to gauge the comfort level of parents and teachers on returning to classrooms while they make decisions about the fall schedules. Kelly recommends districts let parents know about their intended schedule models no later than 20 days before the start of the school year.
“The report alone does nothing unless we collectively, as a state, make a commitment to getting our kids back to school that starts now,” Kelly said. “What we do right now is going to determine whether or not we can open schools in the fall.”
The task force plans to release a forum for public comments next week on the new report and meet next Friday to finalize recommendations.