Sumter elementary schools expanding to 4 days of in-person learning

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As new COVID-19 cases continue to drop statewide and groups continue to push both for teachers to be allowed to get vaccinated and for students to return to the classroom, Sumter School District will expand its face-to-face instruction next month.

Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox distributed a letter to district families Friday afternoon to announce elementary schools will begin offering four days of in-person learning Monday, March 22. She said the decision was guided by factors such as the implementation of mitigation strategies, community needs, stakeholder input, the number of positive cases in the community and staff availability.

The four days will be Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with Wednesday continuing to be for all students to learn independently online from home through prerecorded lessons and assignments while schools are cleaned and staff receives professional development.

"While the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in a school may be less when indicators of community spread are lower, this risk is also dependent upon the implementation of school and community mitigation strategies," Martin-Knox wrote in the letter.

She outlined five strategies outlined by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the spread of the virus in schools: universal and correct use of masks; maintaining a physical distance of 6 feet apart "to the greatest extent possible"; handwashing and sneezing and coughing etiquette; routine cleaning of facilities and high-touch surfaces; and contact tracing in combination with quarantine.

Students in middle and high school will remain in the two-day hybrid model for now, Martin-Knox said.

Parents can keep their children in an all-virtual learning capacity for the entire semester, though they should have completed a virtual learning agreement with their school.

Martin-Knox said in the letter that elementary schools will send direct communication to their families with more information about the expanded in-person learning option.

Students started the school year at the end of August fully virtual and began phasing in the hybrid/blended learning of model of two days per week of in-person learning offered in October. After COVID-19 cases surged locally and across the state with Thanksgiving and the winter holidays, the district moved back to all-virtual instruction in mid-December, returning to hybrid at the beginning of February.

Cases have been decreasing from record highs reached at the beginning of the year, but they are still at pre-Thanksgiving November levels.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell issued a warning Friday afternoon during a media briefing to remain vigilant in prevention efforts.

"It is encouraging," she said of the lower daily case counts, "but it is exactly the perception that the threat is no longer there that drives" numbers to go back up. She urged people continue to follow prevention measures.

Expanding in-person learning in schools has been a priority across the state, as has an effort to make teachers eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Federal guidelines indicate once they are vaccinated, teachers would not have to miss school to quarantine when exposed to the virus, a situation that has put staffing at dire levels.

Lawmakers generally support bumping teachers up to Phase 1a, but the governor and the state's public health agency have opposed the move because they say with a still limited supply of doses, there are others at higher risk.

At the same time, Gov. Henry McMaster on Friday lifted two of the last remaining restrictions put in place to prevent virus spread.

Starting Monday, there will no longer be a requirement to stop selling alcohol at 11 p.m., and limits on mass gatherings of 250 people or more will be removed.

Restaurants and bars have had to cut off alcohol since July. Event organizers have had to apply for permits to hold events with more than 250 people since August.

The Associated Press reported cases have dropped by more than 26% during the last two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, but that South Carolina still has the second-highest rate of cases per capita in the nation.