The Beaufort County School District will temporarily adopt a full-virtual educational model to teach its 22,000 students when school reopens this September.
“Having reviewed DHEC metrics for the past six weeks, we see COVID-19 conditions simply are not improving in our community,” Superintendent Frank Rodriguez said. “In fact, they have been getting worse. Last week, Beaufort County reported a record 113 infections in a single day. Nearly half of our county’s 43 confirmed deaths occurred in July.”
In South Carolina, DHEC designates transmission risk as “high” in counties where percent positive rates are 10 percent or higher. DHEC’s most current metrics released on Monday indicate that Beaufort County’s percent positive rate was 20.8 percent for the second consecutive week.
White House Coronavirus Coordinator Deborah Birx has urged school districts located in “hotspots” to substitute distance learning for face-to-face classroom instruction.
“If you have a high caseload and active community spread, just like we are asking people not to go to bars, not to have household parties, not to create large, spreading events, we are asking people to distance-learn at this moment so we can get this epidemic under control,” she said during a televised interview on Sunday.
Rodriguez emphasizes that he wants to return to face-to-face instruction, as do most teachers, support staff, students and families.
“But before that can happen safely, conditions must be safer than they are today,” he said. “The coronavirus is out of control, and no country in the world has successfully reopened its schools when infection rates were this high. The question given current conditions is not “if” a child or teacher will be infected, it’s when.”
After school starts, the school district will continue to assess the situation, Rodriguez said.
“Based on data and science, we will decide when to resume face-to-face instruction. Once again—and I can’t stress this enough—resuming face-to-face instruction is our goal.”
The State Department of Education’s recent approval of the county school district’s plans for reopening its schools contains a caveat that has caused some consternation at the local level, Rodriguez said. He noted that the plan’s approval was contingent upon the district offering an in-person option no later than Sept. 14, 2020.
The superintendent said he would lobby the state in hopes of being granted relief from that provision.
“Given Beaufort County’s high infection rates, our students, our employees, and all of their families deserve our advocacy and protection from potentially harmful conditions. They represent the best of who we are as a district, and we will do our utmost to safeguard their health and well-being.”
The district had been planning for both face-to-face and virtual instructional options for several months, holding out hope of accommodating families that preferred an in-school option. However, the superintendent recognized that delaying a reopening decision in hopes that COVID-19 infection rates would suddenly decrease placed the district at a significant disadvantage leading up to the first day of school.
“We must focus on educating our children in the safest and most effective way possible,” he said. “Right now, that means providing a virtual education. Employing a virtual model will remove the distractions of repeated quarantines and school closings due to COVID-19 cases. Strong virtual instruction can continue regardless of virus spread.”
Deputy Superintendent of Schools Duke Bradley assured parents that the quality of virtual education Beaufort County students would receive beginning in September will be superior to that provided in the wake of Gov. Henry McMaster’s decision last spring to abruptly shut down schools as the COVID-19 epidemic began to spread.
“Tonight the Board approved the acquisition of K12 Learning Solutions for this pivotal year. This virtual platform will serve students in grades K- 8. High school students will use Virtual SC, a state-sponsored program,” Bradley said. “Both platforms are considerably more comprehensive than what was hastily implemented last spring. Even more, our implementation of them will be better and more consistent across schools.”
More information on both virtual educational platforms will be provided to parents in a briefing later this week. Additional information will also be provided to families regarding Pre-K, the service of Special Education and ESOL students, and a host of other topics leading up to the start of classes.
Regarding access to technology, every K-12 student in the district will receive a digital learning device.
“Our goal is for all students to have internet accessibility through purchases we’ve made and by leveraging strategic partnerships to accommodate families in need,” Bradley said.
In terms of athletics, the district continues to follow the guidance of the South Carolina High School League and remains in continued discussion with them.
Rodriguez extended an appeal to the community, re-emphasizing that he wants to reopen with face-to-face instruction as soon as possible. But he said that won’t be possible to do safely without the active help and cooperation of Beaufort County citizens.
“The sooner we all consistently follow masking and physical-distancing recommendations, the sooner we can reduce COVID-19 infection rates and safely reopen schools,” he said.
Rodriguez said he hoped COVID-19 infections will decrease so the district can resume face-to-face instruction as soon as possible. “But until that can happen, our primary goal will be to produce the best possible learning experience for our students and their families,” he said.
The Beaufort County Board of Education today also further revised the 2020-21 school calendar, updating weather makeup and teacher workdays as well as moving the beginning of winter break from December 24 to December 23. Instruction will still commence on September 8 and the final day of classes will be June 17.
Source: Beaufort County Schools