COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina has officially taken its public schools virtual for the remainder of the school year, extending a distance-learning environment implemented more than a month ago as the new coronavirus outbreak emerged in the state.
As expected, Gov. Henry McMaster announced Wednesday that all public K-12 schools will remain closed through the rest of the spring semester. He said a forthcoming executive order would provide flexibility to school districts, particularly for summertime instructional possibilities for special needs students.
“We have been able to carry on really good instruction,” state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said during a briefing, even as she acknowledged that 1 in 4 districts have been unable to teach online, relying instead on worksheets and other paper materials.
“The digital divide in South Carolina has become very apparent,” Spearman said.
Asked how students would be assessed for the semester, Spearman said teachers have not been issued grading guidelines, but affirmed that only an “extraordinary circumstance” would prevent students from advancing to the next grade. She urged educators to use “common sense” when assessing students.
In mid-March, McMaster initially shuttered public schools for the remainder of that month, setting into motion an e-learning program new to most students and teachers across the state. Food centers and delivery options were set up for students reliant on food provided in schools, as well as any others in need, and hundreds of the state's school buses were equipped with Wi-Fi to serve as hotspots for students without internet access at home.
Spearman said more than 5 million meals have been served, and this service will continue, as will the Wi-Fi bus deployment.
Last month, Spearman also noted that she had requested a waiver from federally required student assessments administered to the state’s students each spring. On Wednesday, she said she hopes that schools could re-open as scheduled in August and would be putting together a task force to determine how to proceed.
"Absolutely, we’re going to be working toward that," she said.
The governor has already called for colleges and universities in the state to stay virtual for the rest of this term, and several have announced plans for delayed or virtual commencement exercises for graduating students. McMaster’s closure decision applies to South Carolina’s public schools. Some private educational institutions across the state have already indicated they will follow suit.
The order comes as the governor is beginning to loosen other restrictions, allowing businesses previously deemed non-essential — department stores, flea markets, florists, bookstores and music shops — to reopen their doors. The governor’s official stay-at-home order remains in place, although that mandate already allowed the patronage of essential businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies, home improvement stores and medical facilities, as well as thousands of others that received waivers from state officials.
The governor has also lifted a mandatory closure order for the state's beaches, provided that visitors practice social distancing, although some coastal towns have said they'll stay shut down for now.
Spearman said she's encouraged by how South Carolinians had responded to the needs of the state's students.
“It has been a burden. It's been sad to see schools closed," she said. "But it has been a joy to see how everyone has pulled together and worked together on this for the good of our children.”
More than 4,750 COVID-19 cases have been reported statewide, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control's Wednesday update. Officials reported five more deaths for a total of 140 from the virus.
State health officials also released for the first time that more than 240 of the state's cases are in nursing homes, rehabilitation centers or community residential care facilities.
For most people, the coronavirus behind the pandemic causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause severe illness such as pneumonia, or even death.