COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCBD) – There are just a few weeks left in an uncharted and challenging school year. As COVID-19 restrictions are eased, state and local education leaders look ahead to summer and the 2021-22 school year. 

While the goal is to return to normal, safety remains top priority.

Plans are in the works to safely transition to summer learning and activities and re-open schools in the fall.  State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said she expects a normal opening. 

“I don’t see us restricting from a state level. It will all be handled at the local level. They want things to be as normal as possible too,” she said.

Spearman said vaccination is the key for all 81 school districts to return to normal operations. 

“The numbers vary from district to district, but we’ve been very pleased,” she said. “Most teachers did take advantage of the vaccine, and that’s a good thing.  Now we’re working on the high schoolers.”

As restrictions are eased over the summer and next fall, Spearman says “I’m anticipating a normal opening. We have work to be done. Our districts are right now writing the Academic Recovery Plan to tell us what they’re going to do, so we can help them with some of the money that we have received from the State.  We’ll match some of our money with theirs if they’re doing best practices and helping with interventions.” 

According to the Department of Education, by May 28th, all districts are required to submit an Academic Recovery Plan detailing goals and strategies for providing annual growth in English Language Arts and Math for all students, and catch-up growth for those most impacted by the pandemic.

All districts are not required to offer virtual next year, but some will.  Spearman said the process will be more structured.

“I think you’re going to see the district, the schools more involved in that decision.  If your child performed well, then they will be allowed to do it, but if the data shows they just did not do well, the school needs to work with the family to say you need to bring your child to school.  So, look for some different guidelines around that selection.”

Charleston County School District Springfield Elementary teacher Summer Pettigrew started the school year teaching virtually.

“At the beginning of the year, during the summer when we were planning to come back, there was a lot of fear honestly and anxiety about what it’s going to look like,” she said.

Pettigrew is vaccinated and sees light at the end of the tunnel. 

“A fresh start for sure. I think hopefully things will be more under control, seems to be getting better,” said Pettigrew. “I would love to be able to start in person, but it will be what it is. Looking forward to hearing a plan soon, plan in place over the summer so we can start preparing our classrooms for lots of eager children.”

Pettigrew went on to say, “The school district I know is going to keep in place whatever state and local health professionals say we need to keep in place.”

Pettigrew is one of Charleston County School District’s 3,700 teachers. “The message to teachers is thank you, thank you, thank you,” said Charleston County Superintendent Dr. Gerrita Postlewait. 

“We have about almost 78-percent of our students are coming in person and that’s 37,500 something around there, the other 22 percent are virtual.  Next year, we’re going to try to the extent that we can return to normal, normal classroom operations.  We will offer through our collaborations with the other districts in the region, a virtual academy. Students have already registered for that.  We’ve had over 400 students register for virtual next year.”

Dr. Postlewait says they will continue to partner with MUSC and DHEC. 

“They have researched and advised us.  They helped us set up our classrooms, and we will continue to follow their advice.  Their advice is to continue the plexiglass and face mask in place, so that’s our intention,” says Postlewait.

Since the start of the pandemic, the district has had twenty-seven-hundred total cases of COVID. 

Postlewait says, “We’re seeing a steep downward trend in the amount of COVID infections in teachers.  We’ve gone from double digits to single digits to zero cases of COVID, not just teachers but our support staff, bus drivers.  We’ve had no COVID outbreaks.  However, among our students, we’re seeing an upward tick in COVID cases, so we want to make sure we get student infections back down.”

Charleston County School District, the second-largest school district in the state, was among the first to vaccinate teenagers in school, and school leaders say it’s an effort they hope to expand. 

Postlewait says, “We were a little disappointed that more students and family didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to be vaccinated, but over six hundred students were.”

The district will continue to work with Fetter Health to vaccinate students at eight additional sites in the coming months. Over the break, summer sessions, sports training, and camps are planned. 

“We may try a classroom or two without masks, just to see if the parents are willing, what that might look like, what the results are, but we’ll take month by month following the guidance of the medical experts.”

School leaders are moving forward, empowered by lessons learned along the way.

“Hats off to anyone who works in education, from the bus driver, cafeteria worker, all the way to the highest administrator,” said Spearman. “We’ve learned a lot, and we’ll be using that knowledge, as we move forward, and looking forward to a great school year and getting back to normal here in South Carolina.”