From the Wednesday, Sept. 30 issue of The Laurens County Advertiser
Laurens, SC – With a five to two vote, Laurens District 55 Board of Trustees on Monday night approved Superintendent Dr. Ameca Thomas’ recommendations to begin gradually bringing elementary age children back to school five days a week, and the first group will begin Oct. 12. Trustees Mike Hughes and Cathy Little cast the dissenting votes.
The superintendent’s recommendations included a request that she be given flexibility to add more classes to five days a week prior to the next monthly board meeting if the situation allowed.
“We want to bring back 5K and first grade to five days a week,” Thomas said, explaining that it will require rearrangement of furniture and changes to a few classrooms and teacher spaces for that to happen. “They are the groups we can social distance by making some adjustments.”
Other elementary students will be added to the five-day- a-week plan once the district receives a shipment of protective sheets of plexiglass and additional Protective Personal Equipment already ordered by the State Department of Education.
When asked by Little if the district could set a date for when the other elementary classes would open five days a week, Thomas said the exact shipment date for the PPE and plexiglass is unknown but the week after it arrives, the district hopes to shift to daily classes for English as a Second Language and for second and third grades. Then barring any issues, the remainder of the elementary grades would quickly follow.
Little and Hughes said they would prefer having all classes return to five days a week more quickly, and Little said the parent surveys indicated that even without the possi- bility of social distancing, most parents would like to see all classes open for face- to-face instruction.
“People who have contacted me want five days a week. Period,” Little said.
Thomas had presented data from District 55’s parent and staff surveys, and while 61.7 % of parents favored returning to face-to-face even with- out social distancing as long as the community risk was moderate, only 42.9 % of the teachers felt comfortable returning without the ability to social distance.
When surveyed about the current hybrid schedule and moderate community risk, 49.7 % of staff were comfortable. 26.6 % of staff were open to five days a week under the moderate risk, and 20% indicated they still preferred e-learning.
Thomas explained that many teachers who had requested positions in the virtual school were not able to do that due to the small num- ber of teachers required for the Virtual Academy and the many teachers still required for the hybrid and face-to- face learning.
Currently, the only students who are attending school five days a week are those in the various special education and self-contained classes throughout District 55. Thomas said once the DHEC data shows a low risk of COVID-19 in the community, then the district will leave the hybrid schedule and all districtwide classes will return to five days a week.
“We all want our students back five days a week,” Thomas said, “however, we are in a global pandemic so the safety of staff and students has to remain a priority.”
Hughes expressed concern that District 55 is surrounded by districts which had returned to face-to-face instruction.
“I can speak for Clinton because I’m in almost constant contact with the board chair there. One advantage they have is they are going five days a week because they can social distance all grades,” trustee Chair Robbie Bell said, adding that District 56 had only some fifth grade classes which required adjustments to social distance every classroom.
“There are 81 districts in South Carolina,” Bell said. “51 of them are in hybrid right now and only 15 districts are face to face statewide. There are differences in every district and that’s why they let us make decisions based on our own districts.”
“We need to be number 16,” Hughes said.
Other board members expressed concern that the trustees also needed to consider the safety and wishes of the faculty, and that most of the calls had been to encourage the trustees in the difficult decisions facing the board.
“I think we should go forward with the plan,” said Trustee Susan Ware. “Until the risk factor is green, it’s a gradual process and we have to look out for the safety of students and the staff.”
Other recommendations approved with a 5 to 2 vote included adapting the district’s current flu policy to COVID-19 in the event an outbreak occurs. A minimum two-week quarantine requiring e-learning would occur in the event of positive tests by 20 % of a classroom or group, or 10 % of a school, including teachers.
In either case, school would reopen and classroom instruction would resume if the positive case numbers decreased below that threshold.
“This is the same protocol that has already been in place for the flu using DHEC guidelines,” Thomas said.
In other business, a committee of Susan Ware, Terri Martin and Mike Hughes was formed to determine the safest options for returning to fully open board meetings.
Little requested instead that a vote be held to open the board’s meetings beginning next month, but it was deemed that by protocol such a motion could not be made if it had not been included in the board’s agenda, which is required to be released at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting.