CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The state’s education superintendent says school leaders are working on multiple scenarios to address what a new school year might look like after a global pandemic.
Molly Spearman said Tuesday she thinks students may have to be split up so that there are not as many children on school buses or in the classroom together at the same time. She recently pointed out that school buses carry 78 students who sit three to a seat and a typical classroom normally places about 24 kids in an 800-sq. ft. classroom, which means the only way to maintain social distancing would require having people “standing in the corners.”
School leaders are working on a “Plan A, Plan B and Plan C” for the upcoming school year, she said, noting there is still a great deal of uncertainty.
“It would be wonderful if it could, if it could be like it’s always been. But I think that’s fairly doubtful,” she said. “It’s very difficult and everyone’s talking about it all across the country. We’re all in the same shape, so we’re looking at the best practices and we will have some guidance coming out soon from the Department of Education on different models depending on how it can work.”
Spearman said her department is also looking at how to best spend $216 million coming to the state from the U.S. Department of Education. Ninety percent of those funds will go straight to school districts.
“There’s a variety of ways that it can be used from cleaning schools to emotional support for children to extra instructional days to buying computers,” she said.
She said she hopes the funding will help districts be better prepared for a different type of school model whenever students return to the classroom.
When Gov. Henry McMaster ordered schools to be closed because of the pandemic, Spearman said the eLearning program was not designed for longterm school closures.
“The pilot that had been going on with eLearning was really for inclement weather. Maybe you’re out a day or two for snow and, that the setup was there that there would be no new learning introduced, but we have sent out guidance to the districts and when this became so extended.,” she said.
She said while it is difficult to introduce new material for eLearning and that teachers have to do it carefully, districts should be sending additional materials. But she said the direction from the Department of Education was to carry on eLearning for as long as they can.
“Now I know those last two weeks of school, that’s normally when testing was going on, the state assessments,” she said. “So the districts have quite a bit of flexibility in those last two weeks to collect materials, have our parent teacher conferences, and even really can bring in some students, or if the family and teacher agree and have some one to one.”
Spearman said making sure all students have access to technology has been one of the biggest challenges as schools moved to distance learning.
“You know, pencil and paper is not necessarily bad,” she said. But the problem is you’ve got to have a parent who’s available and who can work with the child, who can work with the child with pencil and paper versus the teacher who might be able to communicate through, through the internet."
She acknowledged those situations will be in the poorest areas with children who live in poverty and many are struggling.
“Those are the children that we really do need to look at giving some extra days perhaps this summer,” Spearman said. "We’re looking at our normal schedule for summer reading camp to expand that hopefully that could be done in small settings with students who really need some extra days to make sure that they not only catch up but they don’t lose and slide during that summertime. So we are planning to offer a summer reading and we’re adding math to that for kindergarten through third graders, and that would be first priority would be for those children that we suspect would need it the most."
Spearman also speculated about the possibility of adding extra days to the school year, which is normally 180 days. But she said doing so is very expensive."
"For a week, just to pay the teacher salary for the state, it’s $100 million just for one week. So it’s very expensive so we got to weigh the outcomes, and really decide how best to spend that money.
But Spearman also said that for some areas, like Allendale County, technology isn’t the main problem.
“We had the devices, but the problem is the children get home and there’s no internet service,” she said. "And so our providers have have really stepped up to offer that discounted but still there are areas not just in the rural areas but in some of our downtown urban areas where either, you know ,the family may not be able to afford it, but there are many places where the service just doesn’t go that far."
She said that is a huge issue that cannot be solved just by educators. She said it would take business leaders and “a concerted, combined collaborative effort” to get better internet service across the state, which she said would benefit not just K-12 students, but college students and parents who are trying to look for work or sign up for unemployment.
“I hope that that will be some lemonade that’s made out of these lemons that we’re going through and that we will make progress in that area,” she said.
Spearman extended a special thank you to the parents working with their children’s schools and to the teachers who she said have done an extraordinary job of “changing their mode of instruction overnight.”
“And a really I want to say thank you to the cafeteria workers and bus drivers who are doing an extraordinary job, we’ve served as of yesterday, we’re pushing right at 7 million meals that have been prepared delivered to children in need across South Carolina in these past few weeks,” she said. “It’s a miracle happening right in front of our eyes and they are really heroes and I appreciate all the dedication that they’re giving to our children.”
She said school leaders have learned a lot and know that there’s a lot of instruction they can deliver now on through the internet that they have not done before.
“So I think this will change education in America,” she said.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.