School opening plans roll on as hundreds rally for ‘virtual only’

Teachers from around South Carolina lined up last Monday to protest the plan to launch the new school year with in-person instruction. Staff photos by Tony Baughman

COLUMBIA – On a typical summer Monday with the start of new school year approaching, Frances Coleman likely would have been thinking about how to share her love of science with students in one of the bright, sparkling new labs at Ridge Spring-Monetta High School.

Instead, this past Monday she and several hundred other educators from around South Carolina clustered in the parking lot of the South Carolina State Museum with a shared goal: to convince their elected officials to embrace “science over politics.”

“I hope the State hears us loud and clear. We do not want to go in the classroom and get sick,” Mrs. Coleman said, dripping sweat behind her cloth face mask as she stood in the scorching July sun, awaiting the start of a “Motor March” organized by the statewide teacher advocacy group SC For Ed.

The SC For Ed Motor March began with teachers lined up in the State Museum parking lot.

A short while later, Mrs. Coleman was among a horn-honking parade of more than 400 decorated cars rolling past the State House and the Governor’s Mansion in the first of five days of demonstrations by SC For Ed members. The take-home message of the peaceful protests: start the 2020-21 school year with “virtual-only” instruction until the soaring number of coronavirus cases in South Carolina abates.

“As a state, we all need to work together,” Mrs. Coleman said. “We’re trying to social distance, use our masks, stay away from people – but really, our numbers have to be much lower than they are.”

Mrs. Coleman said that she is as eager as any other teacher to return to the classroom and reconnect with her students, but only when the scientific data shows the coronavirus threat diminished enough to feel comfortable and secure.

“Everybody out here who is a teacher wants to be face-to-face,” she said. “That is the ultimate goal, but right now it is not safe for our students. It’s not safe for me. It’s not safe for our colleagues.”

Meanwhile all across South Carolina, school administrators are moving ahead with plans to reopen schools according to guidelines set forth by the South Carolina Department of Education (SCDOE). Those plans must include at least an option for students to attend some classes in-person or they will not be approved by the SCDOE.

As of Wednesday, the state education department had approved only six plans from the more than 70 that have been submitted by individual districts. Saluda County Schools were among the first batch of approved schools.

In Batesburg-Leesville’s Lexington Three School District, the reopening plans give parents the option of either “virtual only” instruction or a hybrid of virtual and in-person learning.

“Beginning in late May, Lexington Three’s Learning and Operations Team began its work to plan for the safe reopening of our Batesburg-Leesville Schools for the 2020-2021 school year,” Lexington Three Superintendent Dr. Ashley Atkinson said in a statement from the District Office. “Our team has been diligent in including teachers, parents, students, administrators and staff in every step of the planning and information-gathering process. In reviewing the recommendations from the AccelerateED Task Force, it was apparent no one-size-fits-all approach was appropriate nor intended for individual districts or communities.”

In Aiken County, where Mrs. Coleman teaches, Superintendent King Laurence stressed that “the safety, security and well-being of our teachers, students and staff is always our top priority no matter the circumstances,” even as Ridge Spring-Monetta High and other schools prepare to open with a blend of virtual and face-to-face learning.

“The specific circumstances due to the ongoing pandemic are of course challenging,” Mr. Laurence said. “However, we feel our approved plan for a hybrid return to school in August with an all-virtual option, paired with upgraded cleaning procedures and added custodial staffing during the school day will allow us to return to instruction safely and effectively.”

In Lexington Three, Dr. Atkinson reported that the reopening plans for Batesburg-Leesville schools include “enhanced safety protocols” to protect teachers and students who opt for in-person learning. Those precautions include daily symptom screenings for all students and staff, reduced class size and screening partitions, cleaning and disinfecting schedules in every facility, mandatory use of masks on all buses, use of student masks in common areas, hallways and during student movement, use of masks by all staff, plus socially distanced arrival and dismissal procedures and socially distanced breakfast and lunch procedures.

While plans are rolling forward toward a reopening that includes both virtual and in-person options, Mr. Laurence said that Aiken County Public Schools “encourage all Aiken County teachers to continue to advocate for themselves and their profession. Prior to a recent board meeting, many members of an Aiken County teacher organization gathered to advocate for a hybrid approach in our return to school, and we were happy to accommodate their request to share and express their views.”

At SC For Ed, founder and board member Lisa Ellis – who is entering her 19th year of teaching at Blythewood High School – maintains that anything less than “virtual only” poses an unnecessary risk to professional educators in South Carolina.

“It’s simply not safe,” she said. “Students need to go back to school absolutely, but not to the school building until this gets under control. Teachers are ready to teach virtually, to teach through e-learning. I know that we’ve been working on it all summer. We’ve figured out what worked and what didn’t work in the spring. We’re better prepared for it now, and we just want to make sure that our teachers are safe and that our students are safe.”