BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - The Berkeley County School Board has voted to approve moving all classes from traditional face-to-face classes to virtual classes from Dec. 22 to Jan. 11. The vote was 5-4.
Dec. 22 was already a virtual day and the last day of school. Students will return to school on Jan. 4 and will be learning virtually for that week. According to district officials, on Jan. 11 which is a Monday, students who were previously in face-to-face classes will return to those traditional learning classes.
Before the late Tuesday night vote was taken on the motion, Board Chair Sally Wofford said she “highly, highly” recommended against the motion, saying that an all virtual Berkeley County schools was bad for everyone.
“I am telling you the wrath of the working people in Berkeley County is hard to take,” said Wofford who also pointed out to the people who spoke out against the proposal. “This number of people who showed up here tonight is a drop in the bucket...this is bad for our kids. It is bad for our working families. This is bad.”
Board member Kirstin Tanner said one of the biggest reasons why the district should move to a full transition to virtual learning is staffing issues. She said she’s spoken to several principals in the district who have reported serious concerns about the level of staffing that they’re able to provide to students.
“Because teachers are out, students are sitting in multipurpose rooms and cafeterias with principals supervising, and I’m talking more than 100 students per class period,” Tanner said. “It is clear we are not delivering the education that our children need.”
She said she was also concerned that if the district does not follow scientific data, it would wind up in a situation similar to Lexington County. Lexington School District Two had reported that one of its elementary schools would move to fully-virtual learning due to the number of people exposed to COVID-19 at the school.
The discussion got heated earlier Tuesday night after board member Mac McQuillin said he was not informed about the proposal in a timely manner and said the council members who put the issue into the agenda wanted to close schools.
Board member Kelly Marone, who along with Wigfall and Tanner introduced the original proposal, told McQuillin that she and the other two council members never said that they wanted to shut down schools.
“So to say that I want schools closed, it’s not right,” Marone said. “The reason why we went into it on the agenda is so that we can discuss it as a board, and not have individual phone calls with the administration, so that the public can hear everybody’s stance on what we believe and what we think is the right thing.”
McQuillin cited a report from today that stated out of 44,070 employees 109 have tested positive.
“Out of respect you ought to call each board member, let them know what’s coming so that we’re not blindsided, parents aren’t blind sided,” McQuillin said.
Board members said prior to Tuesday night’s meeting they had received hundreds of emails after the public learned about the proposal to revert classes to virtual learning.
Officials say no changes would come for five calendar days, and the district only has about a week or two left for in-person learning.
According to board member Crystal Wigfall, the original proposal would have traditional classes revert to virtual classes for Dec. 21, Dec. 22 and two weeks after Christmas vacation. Then the board would determine if it would be safe to return to traditional classes.
The board heard from more than 20 people regarding virtual and face-to-face classes before they took up voting on the proposal. Parents told the board that their children were suffering in their school work when they were doing class virtually, and pleaded with board members to not return the district to virtual learning.
“I feel very strongly based on the evidence, that that’s really uncalled for,” said Joseph Pinner, a Berkeley County parent. “It would be a very inappropriate decision to make. We’re not seeing any kind of mortality in children, school aged children.”
Another parent said when her kids were learning virtually, they were not happy and learned nothing. However, now that they were back to face-to-face learning they were thriving, the parent said.
Some parents urged that the district to continue to give them a choice of traditional learning or blended learning.
“I can’t produce what those teachers are producing,” one parent said. “Hands are on are the most important thing for them.”
Teachers also spoke at tonight’s hearing and said they were worried about getting COVID-19 and advocated the return of virtual learning.
“I’m very concerned about our current face-to-face plan,” said Rachel Gamble, a College Park Middle School teacher. “First and most importantly, the plan endangers the health and lives of our community and faculty at large. Secondly, teachers from across the district and all grade levels feel, for several reasons, like the plan is not sustainable.”
A Hanahan teacher compared the pandemic to that of Hurricane Hugo in terms of preparing for the worst and acting now.
“And since that storm we have been told, we can replace your property, but we cannot replace your life,” she said. “Our COVID numbers are rising day over day. Our staff at our schools have already been impacted and most likely will worsen as the infection comes into our area.”
A science teacher said that students are not at risk, but she and her colleagues were at risk.
“How many of us have to get seriously ill with serious health repercussions that are long lasting? And then what are you going to do to replace us,” she said.
Berkeley County Schools had offered all students the option of face-to-face or virtual learning since Sept. 8. Berkeley County was one of fifteen school districts to offer an option for students to come back to school five days a week in-person at the start of the school year.
District officials said Tuesday night’s vote was added to the agenda after a request from several board members, not from district officials.
Berkeley County has a dashboard that tracks all student & staff cases in Berkeley County Schools. You can access that here.