CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - South Carolina Education Superintendent Molly Spearman toured Matilda Dunston Elementary School in North Charleston Thursday, saying she was impressed with the Charleston County School District’s Safe Restart Plan.
Dunston Elementary is a school that has been retrofitted with plexiglass barriers to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. She also heard more about the Charleston County School District’s Safe Restart Plan from district superintendent Dr. Gerrita Postlewait.
“Well I think this school seems to be very, very well prepared with the facilities,” she said. “In fact, Dr. Postlewait and her staff, they are leading the state. We’re all watching them too, because of all the things that they’ve done, with the plexiglass, with the signage, with the separation of the desk or with the training that they’ve given for their custodians.”
She also said she wanted she wanted school districts across the state to make returning children to the classroom as soon as possible their goal.
“But now, as were getting closer, and as the virus rate is changing, we are urging every district official to make that their goal to get back to five days a week safely face-to-face,” she said. “But certainly to do that at an appropriate time.”
This comes a month after she reportedly disagreed with the governor's press conference calling to mandate all schools across the state make in-person classes an option from day one.
“The governor and I share in that understanding that face-to-face is the most ideal for us. But the difference is, I think at that time I could not say that every school in South Carolina had to open five days a week because we were not ready for that,” Spearman said. “But now, as we’re getting closer, and as the virus rate is changing, we are urging every district official to make that their goal to get back to five days a week safely face-to-face. But certainly to do that at an appropriate time.”
During the visit, Postlewait said officials are looking at how they can accommodate more students that want to return in person, with lessened capacity due to social distancing. One option, she says, could be to potentially move students to different schools with more space.
"We are looking at the possibility of having some students, whole classes of students who are able to come back, perhaps be situated in a different school if one school is at full capacity in terms of the numbers of students that we can bring back safely and another school still has capacity," Postlewait said.
She also said the district expects more parents to want to send their children back than teachers that will be comfortable to return, but she wants both teachers and families to be given the option to forgo in-person schooling if they don't feel comfortable.
“Teachers and principals together in each building have a voice,” Postlewait said. “Every person has the right to make that decision based on what he or she thinks is best for him or her, that includes every parent in Charleston County.”
In addition to daily sanitizing, millions of dollars in Plexiglas and routine changes, all students and teachers will be required to wear a mask all day, including in the classroom.
"Our default position is going to be to wear masks, everyone in the building wears a mask all the time. A student wears a mask from the time they get out of the car or get on the bus to the time they get back in the car or off the bus," Postlewait said.
Both Spearman and Postlewait said they are planning for potential outbreaks and each school should follow protocols outlined by the AccelerateED task force and the state health department if someone gets sick or is exposed to COVID-19.
Spearman said she wishes she could guarantee parents 100% that no one will get the virus, but said that would be impossible.
“But I can say to parents, though, is I’m going to do everything possible. I know Dr. Postlewait and the folks here in Charleston, we are doing everything we can possibly do to get our schools as safe as they can be,” Spearman said.
Spearman said she was encouraged by the preparations she saw at Dunston Elementary.
“So learning and seeing this and taking this information to other school districts will help us all be able to have a safe school year,” Spearman said.
Spearman echoed the words of state epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell who said Wednesday recent COVID-19 numbers show that wearing face masks works to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“The number one thing that needs to happen, if you want to see us get back to school, if you want to go to a football game on Friday night, you need to put on a mask,” she said.
Last month, CCSD officials said the district was spending $6 million on plexiglass, contact tracing and other safety measures.
School district Chief Operating Officer Jeff Borowy said they’ve ordered 15,000 sheets of it, costing almost $2 million.
Borowy said plexiglass barriers increase capacity by 40 percent. With it installed, he said many elementary school classrooms could fit 24 students safely, and with desks spread out in high schools, they could fit up to 17 safely.
Many of the elementary school classrooms are divided into “pods.” This is where four desks are brought together and all separated by pieces of plexiglass.