SC passes law requiring schools to offer five-day, in-person attendance option
After more than a year of remote learning for some schools, South Carolina public schools will have to offer students the option of attending full time, five days a week by April 26.
The state's General Assembly passed the law Wednesday. Now, it heads to Gov. Henry McMaster, who has been a vocal proponent of keeping schools open full-time throughout much of the COVID-19 pandemic. A spokesperson for the governor said he will "happily" sign the bill into law.
One addition to the bill will prohibit school districts in the 2021-2022 school year from "assigning a teacher to deliver instruction to students simultaneously in-person and virtually, unless it is reasonable and necessary due to extreme and unavoidable circumstances." If a district determines it's necessary, the district will have to provide additional compensation to the teacher.
Immediately following the passage of the bill, the Palmetto State Teachers Association released a statement saying the General Assembly took a critically important step to provide the highest quality instruction to every child.
"Over the course of the past year, schools across South Carolina have been forced to create completely new instructional models to meet the needs of students during a generational pandemic.
"While the legislation wisely provides districts with the ability to use dual modality instruction in 'extreme and unavoidable circumstances,' the experiences of students and teachers with this instructional model this school year have clearly shown that it should only be sued in the most exceptional situations."
State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman added that she is looking forward to the governor signing the bill into law and ensuring every school will be fully open.
"Every family must be given the option of sending their child to school five days a week face to face and the science shows that this can be done safely in every community," Spearman said. "I am thankful for the educators who have been making this option a reality for many throughout this school year."
South Carolina's largest district, Greenville County Schools, is the only district that hadn't announced a date for when all students could attend five-days-a-week. Most teachers in the district received their second COVID-19 vaccination shot on April 16, making them fully vaccinated by April 30.
Greenville County Schools has about 74,000 students and about 10,000 staff. The law means high school students will be able to shift from their current 75% attendance plan of three and four days a week to a full five. In-person elementary and middle school students have already been attending full-time for several months.
Currently, students throughout the district sit three feet apart in plexiglass pods, and pods are separated by six feet. That arrangement will change for high school students, who will now have to sit in traditional rows separated by three feet of space.
Spokesperson Teri Brinkman said the law does not mean high school students will be forced to come back full-time, only that they have the option. If they want to remain on the 75% attendance schedule, they can.
"We are just giving them the option to come back and telling them they don't have to," Brinkman said.
The legislation does not address students who voluntarily opted for virtual learning this year, which Greenville County Schools has largely not allowed to come back to classrooms because of space.
The district has said it's social distancing configurations are based on its in-person students and adding the majority of it's 22,000 virtual students would make social distancing in schools impossible.
But complicating the district's response are the estimated 1,400 kindergarten through eighth grade students who did not opt for virtual learning but were placed in the program because they moved into the district or changed schools mid-year.
Greenville County Schools had been expecting most of those students would remain in the virtual program, because those who decide to attend in-person will have to change class schedules and teachers little more than a month before the end of the school year.
"The student will be walking into a classroom with all new people and a new teacher may or may not be on exactly the same place in the curriculum," Brinkman said.
With only a few days before schools have to comply with the attendance change, Brinkman said administrators have been calling each of the 1,400 students' families to figure out how many are returning to schools.
So far, she estimates about 1,100 of the 1,400 students are likely to return, which means many elementary and middle school classrooms will need to change their plexiglass setups by adding desks in between pods to accommodate the new students.
Some classes may need to return to a traditional setup without plexiglass, which Brinkman said those schools will notify parents beforehand. Schools only have a few days to prepare for the changes, which include transferring students' grades to new teachers, altered bus routes for students who need transportation, and increased food supply at schools.
There are also about 400 high school students who were placed in virtual because of midyear transitions. Those students are unlikely to change schedules or teachers if they opt to return to school buildings since nearly all high school virtual teachers also teach in-person classes.
Students in the district are already required to wear masks when they are unable to stay six feet apart from others. The attendance change means social distancing will be harder with more students, and they will likely have to wear masks for more time during the day.
Ariel Gilreath is a watchdog reporter focusing on education and family issues with The Greenville News and Independent Mail. Contact her at email@example.com and on Twitter @ArielGilreath.