Charleston County students will return to the classroom in less than two weeks, but some parents say they still feel in the dark. 

During a livestreamed question-and-answer session Wednesday night, Charleston County School District officials attempted to answer parents’ concerns and minimize confusion surrounding the upcoming school year. 

Around 25 percent of all CCSD students districtwide are expected to return for the first day of school in person on Sept. 8. The remainder will tune in virtually, either via the district’s virtual academy, a long-term online-only program or the so-called “temporary remote” option. Temporary remote students will eventually be phased into the classroom as COVID-19 conditions improve.  

During Wednesday’s Q&A, Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait said that if COVID-19 conditions continue to improve, all CCSD students who want in-person instruction should be able to receive it by Sept. 21. 

Right now, some 17,600 students have reported they would like to come back to school in person, Postlewait said. Around 16,000 have said they want to start the school year online.

“We have 10,000 or 12,000 parents that we have not been able to get a commitment from yet,” she said.

The full Q&A can be watched on the school district’s YouTube channel.

Below is a condensed list of frequently asked questions and answers provided during the event, along with other back-to-school information parents need to know: 

What will the first day of school look like?

The answer will depend on whether your student is learning in person, via the temporary remote option or under the virtual academy. 

In-person students should expect to see clear, plastic dividers between their desks and should expect to wear a mask for most of the school day.

On Monday, board members approved a measure to designate Sept. 8 and 9, the first two days of school, as early release days to allow teachers to fine-tune and adjust COVID-19 protocol and safety measures, if necessary. All students will be released two hours earlier than their normal dismissal time, spokesman Andy Pruitt said. 

Students who selected temporary remote learning should expect to receive livestreamed instruction from their teachers on a set schedule. There will also be set times where these students are expected to complete independent work. 

Virtual academy students should also expect to connect with teachers in real time online, although some students will be participating in independent courses through Edgenuity and VirtualSC curriculum. 

How will students be prioritized for in-person instruction?

The district is using a lottery system to select half of its students and so-called “objective criteria” to prioritize the remaining students that will be allowed to return for face-to-face instruction on Sept. 8.

Some schools will use academic considerations to pick students. For example, at the elementary school level, younger students who require in-person instruction to form key developmental skills will be prioritized, CCSD Chief Academic Karolyn Belcher said. 

The students who need to receive some special services in-person would also be prioritized, Belcher said, but “providing any more information than that would violate these students’ privacy.”

Most parents should receive communication from their child’s school by the end of the day Friday informing them if their request for in-person instruction will be granted. Students at Wando High School should know by the end of the day Monday. 

What is the district’s face-covering policy?

All students, faculty, staff and visitors who enter CCSD buildings will be required to wear a face covering while inside. Masks will also be required while on district transportation or at school-related activities.

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The district originally said students would be able to remove their masks while sitting at their desks, but this is no longer the case. Under a district policy approved Monday night, students will need to keep their masks on throughout the day except while eating, while at recess or during designated, socially distant “mask breaks.” 

Neck scarves, bandannas, neck gaiters and masks with exhalation valves or vents are not permitted. Face shields cannot be worn alone without a mask or face covering underneath. 

Exceptions will be made for some students with medical concerns or special needs. 

What happens if a student or teacher tests positive, and how many positive cases will it take to close a school? 

There is no defined COVID-19 case threshold that triggers a school or building closure, according to Chief Operating Officer Jeff Borowy.

The main factors school leaders will use to make this decision will be the total of confirmed COVID-19 cases, the distribution of cases within the school and the timing of the spread.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s epidemiology team will work closely with the school district’s lead nurse and principal to navigate individual situations, Borowy said.

If there is a confirmed case within a school, the district’s nursing services department will be informed, usually by a school principal. A school nurse will complete contact tracing the same day. For most cases, this will happen within one to three hours, Borowy said. 

Individuals who have been determined as contacts will be asked to quarantine, and the district’s facilities maintenance team will sanitize the affected areas.

How will parents be notified of a positive case?

The official notification process is still being developed. Earlier this month, Gov. Henry McMaster asked the state health agency to identify positive cases that have been reported within a school. 

The district is working to complete it’s COVID-19 online dashboard, where positive cases will likely be published, Borowy said, but the details of how parents will be notified of a positive case in their child’s school or classroom is still being finalized. 

What COVID-19 metrics is the district using to determine when it’s safe to bring students back? 

Charleston County School District’s COVID-19 metrics, approved Monday by the board, uses a point system to classify the spread of the disease as either low, medium or high — similar to how DHEC classifies the level of disease activity by county.

CCSD will use the two-week incident rate per 100,000 cases, the trend in the two-week incident rate (increasing or decreasing) and the two-week percent positive rate as its three determining factors. 

Each of the three metrics receives points depending on the level of spread. If a factor has a low rating, it’s considered in the green and will receive two points. If it has a medium rating, it’s considered in the yellow and will receive one point. If it has a high rating, it’s considered in the red and will receive zero points. If all categories were rated as low, the district would have six total points.

As of Wednesday, CCSD had two points and was considered to be in the red zone. 

But if the two-week incident rate per 100,000 residents falls below 200, the district will move into the yellow, or medium spread, zone.

If that happens, the district anticipates being able to successfully bring around 50 percent of students back for face-to-face learning districtwide. Once CCSD moves into the yellow zone and begins to phase more students into the classroom, all teachers could be asked to teach students face to face unless they have a documented medical exemption filed with the district’s human resources department, Postlewait said. 

If coronavirus conditions change in Charleston County and cause the district to return to the red zone, “decisions regarding school operations will be made on a school-by-school basis,” Postlewait said. This means the district might not necessarily pull students out of in-person learning if disease spread worsens. 

On Monday, Charleston County’s incident rate was 238 per 100,000 residents.

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