COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - South Carolina Education Superintendent Molly Spearman told the COVID-19 Public Education Committee that while no state school district plans for the fall have been approved, she expects to announce some approvals soon.
Spearman testified at a 10 a.m. meeting at the State House.
Spearman began her comments with an update on the number of students she described as “COVID-19 truant,” those students who remained unaccounted for since schools were closed in mid-March. She said that number stood as high as 16,000 early during the pandemic.
Educators have worked to make contact with students who did not maintain contact during school closures, and Spearman said as of Wednesday, the number of students who remain unaccounted for has dropped to 4,216. Of those, 3,724 of those names have been submitted to the Department of Social Services to investigate whether those students have relocated since the pandemic began.
Spearman said that when the districts were force to close the schools on March 16, the experience became “emergency learning.” She said education leaders made the decision to count all as “present” for attendance records sine there were limits and challenges in counting students. She said the purchase of a statewide learning management system that would give all districts the opportunity to take attendance is underway.
“The expectations will be much higher that students must be engaged every day,” she said. “So, this won’t happen again.”
She also said that while some school districts have announced they have approved their own plans, the state’s Department of Education has not approved any fall plans for any school district.
“We are very close to announcing some of the first plans to be approved,” she said.
A total of 53 districts have turned in a plan and another 28 districts have asked for an extension.
She said a six-person team is reviewing those plans and looking at every aspect. The plans are being reviewed, she said, to ensure districts have a site plan for having students return to the classroom, that they have set high expectations and have a method of measuring academic achievement, and that attendance will be taken.
“As I mentioned before, things will be different,” Spearman said, adding that she has instructed superintendents that even if they are planning an all-virtual model, they must include in their plan an invitation for “all students to come back for some face to face contact with a teacher, even those families that choose that they want to go virtual all year.”
“I still want the schools to lay eyes on those children, at least once, and have a conversation with that group,” Spearman said. “Then you hear of other districts who are saying, ‘Well, we’re going to, because of the high spread, we’re going to go virtual now.' To that group, I said very plainly, you must include face to face with that model. At least and call it a hybrid where children come in at least one day a week.”
Spearman said she would not require school districts to submit plans with five days of in-person instruction if they do not think it is safe to do so.
“I’m not using five-days a week as criteria,” she said. “There will be some five-days approved but there will be other hybrid plans as well.”
Spearman also said she expects to make an announcement soon on bus capacity protocols. She said masks could be required on buses.
“I am contemplating that requirement,” Spearman said. “I do believe I have the authority to require that, especially with transportation since we own all the school buses in the state.”
She also said she would like to see a full-time nurse in every school. More than 100 schools statewide do not have a nurse.
She said districts may allow parents to make adjustments to their selection of either virtual or in-person learning during the course of the school year if the family’s circumstances, such as parents’ employment status or work hours, changes.
Some districts are discussing the possibility of teachers working from home, while others are talking about at-home children learning virtually as the teacher conducts lessons from the classroom.
But she stressed that every district must offer a virtual option and some type of face-to-face option.
The number one priority is the safety of teachers and students, she said.
Her appearance before the committee marks the first time she has made public comments since Gov. Henry McMaster’s news conference Monday during which he instructed all of the state’s school districts to plan for five-day in-person instruction. He said parents must be given the option to either keep their children at home with virtual learning or send them back to school for safe face-to-face learning.
McMaster did not issue an executive order to require schools to offer five-day in-person instruction, but he did say he instructed Spearman not to approve any district plans that did not include the option.
Vice President Mike Pence visited South Carolina Tuesday, stopping in Columbia to attend a meeting with McMaster, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other leaders to discuss the safe reopening of schools.
After that meeting, Pence said he believes schools can safely reopen and told reporters that if he had school-aged children, he “wouldn’t hesitate” to send them back to school and “would encourage any American, any parent in particular, to do the same.”
Some parents really want to keep their children at home and choose a virtual experience,” she said. “Others will want them to face-to-face experience, and we’re going to make sure that’s offered for them.”