With public schools’ start still ahead, private school begins

King Academy’s headmaster Zach Matthews wears his mask as he walks the hallways during the first week of school. Staff photo by Tony Baughman

Zach Matthews, headmaster at Wyman King Academy, opens the front door of the school, slowly raises his arm and aims at the center of his midday visitor’s forehead.

A few tense seconds pass. “You’re good. C’mon in,” Mr. Matthews says, putting away his thermometer and throwing the door open wider.

School is back in session in the age of COVID-19.

While public schools in Lexington and Saluda counties will mark their first day of classes on Monday, Aug. 31, students at King Academy have been gathering in their classrooms for more than a week now. The new school year at this rural private school north of Batesburg-Leesville began for kindergarten through 12th grade on Tuesday, Aug. 11 with 195 children in attendance.

“It seems to have settled in a little better than we had anticipated,” Mr. Matthews said from behind his blue face mask emblazoned with a King Academy Knights logo. “With the policies we’ve put in place, the students have been very good in following them; we really haven’t had any issues. All of our teachers, all of our students, all of our school family are just excited that we can get back in school.”

Like so many schools across the nation, King Academy returned to face-to-face instruction with a long list of new safety precautions in place. Everyone entering the building – students, teachers and staff, visitors and parents – all undergo body temperature screenings before they are welcomed inside.

“The first day, it took a little longer than what it does now, so we’ve gotten into the rhythm already,” Mr. Matthews said. “The students know what to do. They know where they’re going now.”

King Academy students socially distance in two makeshift classrooms set up in the gymnasium. Submitted photo courtesy of King Academy

These days, there are separate entrances for elementary, middle and high school grade levels. Face coverings are mandatory for middle and high school students as they enter and move around the building throughout the day but are not required inside the classrooms. Even in a school as small as King Academy, social distancing is practiced in each classroom as much as possible.

“We set up two classrooms in our gym, one on each side, socially distanced,” Mr. Matthews said.

Elementary-age students are not required to wear masks but are kept safe with the “cohort model,” keeping each class in a tightly-contained environment.

“When they enter in the morning, they go straight to their classrooms and they stay there throughout the day,” Mr. Matthews said. “They do have recess. They can go outside, but all activities they have – whether it’s Spanish class or Bible class, music, art – all of that is done in the classroom. Lunch is taken over there to them in their classrooms.”

The South Carolina Independent Schools Association, the statewide private school organization of which King Academy is a member, has “given us great guidance throughout this summer in trying to figure out what we’re going to do,” he said, “but also they’ve also given us the leeway to see what works best for us.”

Parents are asked to screen their children’s health before bringing them to school. So far, there have been no health concerns among the student population in the first week, but there are strict protocols to protect the rest of the student population if, God forbid, one student somehow should come to school infected with coronavirus.

“We pray every day that we don’t have to be put into that situation, but if we ever are, I feel confident about what we have in place,” Mr. Matthews said. “We’ll work closely with DHEC (the Department of Health and Environmental Control) and their recommendations if we should ever have that.”

Outside the classroom, the 16 members of the King Academy football team began workouts this past Monday with full pads, preparing for their season opener Friday, Aug. 28 at home against Faith Christian Academy. Once again this year, Mr. Matthews is carrying the dual role of headmaster and head football coach.

Even football practices are conducted with social distancing and heightened awareness of personal safety in this season when risk of infection from a killer virus is as real as a pulled hamstring or concussion from contact on the field. Instead of beginning each practice as they have traditionally, by holding hands and praying, players now stand at least six feet apart and hold their arms out toward their teammates.

There are no huddles and no congratulatory man-hugs on the sidelines after a good play. At the end of each practice, instead of converging on the locker room for spirited conversation and fellowship, the players leave the field and take their gear home with them.

Once actual competition starts, some contact will be necessary, of course. “We’re going to be able to, but it’ll be limited. We’re still working on exactly what we’ll need to do for that,” Mr. Matthews – Coach Matthews – said. “We’ve got the gym we can utilize to spread people out.”

After practices and games, the Knights coaching staff will have to take extra measures to disinfect the locker room and gymnasium areas. After all, two regular classes will be meeting in the gym first thing next school.

“I don’t look at it as extra work. I look at it as an opportunity to keep us in school,” Mr. Matthews said.

This headmaster/football coach also knows that he cannot fully insulate his players – or any of his students – from potential COVID-19 exposure at times when they’re not under his supervision.

“I told my guys, I tell them every day, ‘What you do when you leave this school could possibly dictate what we do during the week at practice,’” he said. “It could dictate whether we get to play football.”

While new safety protocols are heightened, the teachers and staff at King Academy have taken great pains to ensure that COVID-19 does not diminish the quality of instruction for the 195 children they aim to educate and inspire. Unlike some larger public school systems, the opportunity to shift into virtual instruction if the pandemic worsens again is limited.

When the coronavirus began spreading across the Palmetto State in March, teachers at King Academy had to adapt quickly.

“In that time, we were so uncertain. Could teachers come to school and use our internet, or do they need to stay at home? Over time, our teachers, our families, embraced the challenge. Our kids need to continue to learn,” Mr. Matthews said.

When schools statewide were shuttered by order of Gov. Henry McMaster, most of King Academy’s elementary school teachers continued teaching as best they could remotely with old-fashioned paper-and-pencil assignments. Middle and high school teachers used internet technology at home to connect with their students – but, of course, in rural Lexington and Saluda counties, access to reliable broadband internet remains a luxury for some.

Still, King Academy has not compromised on its academic expectations.

“Academically, we’re moving forward as we always have,” Mr. Matthews said. “Really, from what I’ve seen, the kids haven’t missed a beat from being out so long.”

There were lessons learned from the emergency shutdown that the teachers and staff at King Academy can use going forward to ensure that quality instruction continues even if the cooler fall and winter months bring a resurgence of COVID-19 infections. Many in the education field say that this pandemic has forever changed education in the 21st century, but like a lazy Sunday afternoon drive down Sardis Road, some things are timeless.

“Our classroom management and our teachers are doing now are no different academically from when we left in March,” Mr. Matthews said. “Our students are still learning. They’re still working hard. We provide the rigor they need to be prepared.”

While the 2020-21 school year is officially underway under the cloud of COVID-19 and new safety protocols, one eternal thing remains at Wyman King Academy.

“For us, we always lean on our faith – whether we’ve got a pandemic here or not. That’s one thing we know: the good Lord’s going to provide for us here,” Headmaster/Coach Zach Matthews said. “We just take it day by day.”