As the number of student and employee COVID cases continues to rise across the county, Beaufort County School District officials have announced a plan to help keep quarantining students up-to-date on their work without crossing the political lines drawn by state officials.

BCSD Superintendent Dr. Frank Rodriguez sent an email home to families on Sept. 8 that outlined a plan for kids that have been diagnosed, exposed or quarantined due to COVID to participate in Zoom classroom calls with their teachers.

Rodriguez told Board of Education members at their Sept. 7 meeting that he is in final conversations with the South Carolina Department of Education to enable BCSD teachers to provide what is called “dual modality simultaneous instruction.”

The new instruction began Sept. 13 and is available only for those diagnosed or confirmed to have been exposed to COVID.

Why the fancy language? The state legislature has passed a law banning state school districts from offering a virtual learning option for the 2021-22 school year. Gov. Henry McMaster led the charge for the law and has been vocal in his steadfast belief that kids need to be back in classrooms.

McMaster has not backed off that belief, despite the national rise in COVID cases due to the Delta variant. National reported cases were at 152,393 on Sept. 7, close to five times the number on the same date in 2020. And many experts predict a further spike to come due to Labor Day travel and the increase in large gatherings such as college football games.

The district announced 236 new COVID infections for the week of Aug. 30 to Sept. 5, slightly up from the week before. Nearly 3,000 people were quarantined during that period, including 2,839 students – close to one in eight district students, easily the highest number of quarantines since the start of the pandemic.

“We know how difficult quarantines can be for students and families, and especially for educators. We have heard from many teachers who expressed a teaching preference for dual modality/simultaneous instruction in order to maintain students’ continuity of academic progress,” Rodriguez told The Sun of the move. “This illustrates the dedication of our educators, for whom I am extremely appreciative. We all want what’s best for the children of Beaufort County, to advance their learning even during these challenging times.”

While the debate over mask mandates in school has gotten heated both online and among parents and administrators at Board of Education meetings, many parents voiced relief at the plan – while others questioned why the district won’t once again offer a full virtual option for all families.

Courtney Potts’ daughter just finished a two-week quarantine and, while she praised teachers for doing the best they can given the restrictions they’re working with, she voiced frustration with the work-arounds that left her daughter unable to participate live in class.

“The teachers were not allowed to Zoom or teach live from the school. Each morning she would have an instructional video from her teachers, followed by an assignment. The videos were super helpful, but since she wasn’t on live with a teacher there was no way to ask questions,” Potts said in a discussion of the new policy on the What’s Happening in Bluffton Facebook group. “So she would have to email her questions, but since teachers were in the middle of class with the face-to-face students, they couldn’t answer during the day. The teachers are absolutely doing a fantastic job with the situation they’ve been dealt – but it is very frustrating, especially since she had a great experience with virtual school last year.”

Other parents shared similar stories of equal parts frustration for the politicization of their kids’ education and praise for the teachers caught in the middle.

“I don’t know if I should use the angry emoji or the caring emoji for the teachers, principals and admin,” said WHIB commenter Michelle Ladd.

Jasper County school officials ignored the state mandate and chose to close schools and go all virtual in early September. The state attorney general’s office is reportedly looking to fine and sanction Jasper and any other districts that close schools or offer a full virtual option.

This latest move by Beaufort County will come at a cost. The new state law added a provision stating that any district that offered any kind of dual modality workaround would need to pay teachers for the extra effort – a well-deserved pay bump, but one that most districts around the state could not afford. Further, the provision requires multiple levels of paperwork and video proof of the added teaching be provided to the S.C. Board of Education before paying teachers.

BCSD officials confirmed to The Sun that the district will be paying teachers that enact the dual modality Zoom classes an extra $1,000 for the first semester. The stipend will be paid in December, according to officials.

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at timwood@blufftonsun.com.