As a dean and leader of a school of education in South Carolina, I believe our primary purpose is to prepare outstanding teachers who will educate and support the children of South Carolina and be leaders in our schools. Each year we mentor and train hundreds of future teachers alongside our public school district partners preparing our students to be teachers that make a difference to the children and families of this great state. Intertwined in our primary purpose is an equally important duty: to serve and support the South Carolina Department of Education, school district leadership and the teachers of South Carolina. Purpose and duty compel me to voice concern about the reopening of K-12 schools in South Carolina to in-person instruction, five days per week.
We would all love to have our schools humming with activity this fall, providing the educational, social and nutritional support that have become critical to our community. We want to train the next generation of South Carolina teachers in our public schools alongside our district partners. This is simply not possible yet — not until the community spread of COVID-19 is managed. Until community spread statistics improve, we cannot put our students and families at risk — especially those most vulnerable in our community.
South Carolina district leaders have worked together throughout the spring and summer to build safer learning options for the fall of 2020. District leaders have drawn on the work and recommendations of the AccelerateED Task Force. The task force recommendations provide a guide built by regional experts and businesses and offer protocols and approaches based on public health knowledge. Task force recommendations also provide guidance and feedback for schools and districts, taking into account educational, social and emotional development, the digital divide, the concerns of working families, students receiving specific educational services, and the health and well-being of teachers and families.
With these recommendations to guide them, school leaders have crafted plans using parent and family input to address community needs and resource gaps. These plans address technology barriers, prioritize staff and student safety, and reduce the risk of spread to vulnerable family members like parents or grandparents. The plans created are collaborative and innovative, and, most importantly, they put the needs of our students and families first. These plans address the specific and unique needs of each district and community and will be reviewed by state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman.
These community-driven, public-health focused reopening plans reflect the best processes and good work of our fellow citizens in an effort to safely open our schools as quickly as the health data allow. These plans use objective and scientific sources, rely on the recommendations of the state’s AccelerateED Task Force, and focus on assuring that they provide the very best educational experience for all children. The goal of each plan is full operation, when conditions can safely allow this. Superintendent Spearman’s support of this process and our local districts has been elemental.
Recommendations that schools be required to offer face-to-face instruction five days a week as well as virtual education in the fall — regardless of coronavirus numbers — is contrary to all we know about the spread of this virus and the recommendations of our own task force and public health professionals. To set aside these community-driven, science-based plans and require in-person instruction contradicts and sets aside the efforts and voices of those who have worked to craft community-specific, need-based responses to the coronavirus challenge. In the best interests of children and families, we should not cast aside the recommendations of the AccelerateED Task Force, leadership of the South Carolina Department of Education, knowledge of districts and communities, the opinions of families and parents, and the expertise of public health and medical scientists. The health and safety of our students and staff must guide all of our choices. As educators this is a compromise we cannot make.
As the leader of an organization tasked to develop future educators, I believe the best and safest way forward is to respect the carefully crafted, community-specific plans created by district leadership. I believe the safest way forward for our learning communities is to respect our local district leadership. A uniform, statewide approach to reopening does not meet the wide-ranging needs of the students and families of South Carolina. I believe we should continue to support and rely on the diligent work and the leadership provided by Superintendent Spearman and the Department of Education as they guide an informed process.
Laura Reynolds, Ph.D., is the dean of the School of Education, Human Performance and Health at the University of South Carolina Upstate.