Classes at Cross Schools began Aug. 12. Bluffton students Ruby Bailey and Glory Jackson, both 4, are ready for a fun year of face to face learning in PreK. HOLLY JACKSON

Beaufort County public schools, originally scheduled to open Aug. 17, will now begin virtual-only classes Sept. 8.

The announcement by District Superintendent Frank Rodriguez in a virtual press conference was heard with dismay by those parents and students who wanted and needed to return to school.

“Resuming face-to-face instruction is our goal,” he said, adding that the district had been planning both options for several months. “We were holding out hope of accommodating our families who wanted an in-school option. But further delaying decisions in the hope that COVID-19 infection rates will suddenly decrease would place our district at a significant disadvantage leading up to the first day of school. And we must focus on educating our children in the safest and most effective way possible. And right now that means providing a virtual education.”

By mid-August, 17,627 students had registered – most of the county’s estimated 22,000 students. The majority had signed up for the in-school option while the remainder chose virtual learning, 54.8 and 45.2 percent respectively, according to Candace Bruder, the district’s director of communications.

“We do not have a set time frame, but we certainly want to open in a face-to-face model as soon as it is safe to do so,” Bruder said.

As the district continues to assess the situation with COVID-19 and monitor metrics from the Department of Health and Environmental Control, Rodriguez is in regular contact with State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman about continuing with virtual learning until the county’s infection numbers decline.

“DHEC designates transmission risks as high in counties where the percent positive rate is 10 percent or higher. Beaufort County is 20.8 percent, double the number it would take to move from the high category to the medium category,” Rodriguez said.

The latest direction from the South Carolina Department of Education regarding the county’s plans states that “Plan approval is contingent upon the district and SCDE reevaluating the district’s in-person option every two weeks, beginning with the district’s official start date.”

Some families have enrolled in both private and public schools. Holly Bounds-Jackson is sending two of her three school-age daughters to Cross Schools.

“This was always the plan for Penny, 2, and Glory, 4. They’ve attended there before and even throughout the summer when they were open beginning June 1,” she said. “I feel really good about the procedures they have in place. I cannot enter the classroom, I’ve had to wear a mask on property since June, and the children get their temperature taken on arrival,” said Bounds-Jackson. “There are more precautions, too: no sharing of crayons, etc., and I feel comfortable with them there.”

Jackson’s third grader, Sofie Beth, goes to Okatie Elementary School and will be doing virtual learning. The mother of four noted that the decision about sending her children to school was not easy for her and her husband, Brian.

“They love school and especially now. These kids have been craving interaction. As a mother, it’s difficult deciding how heavily to weigh social and mental well-being in the midst of a pandemic,” she added. “There have been comments from my kids throughout this time that make it clear it’s all having an impact on them psychologically. I really worry about the long-term effects, and join people everywhere who are hoping and praying this will pass soon.”

As a family, they have also started branching out while staying smart, occasionally dining out and going to the parks in Beaufort.

For other parents, the choice was made early.

Bluffton parent Justin Jarrett said his two children go to Pritchardville Elementary but they had already registered for the virtual platform when the district’s announcement was made.

“Obviously everyone has to make the decision that’s best for their family. We have the ability to do virtual. We have somewhat of a duty to society that if we have that ability to take advantage, that at least there will be one fewer person in the classroom,” Jarrett said. “I work from home already, and my wife is now working from home. We have the support system here. It’s not easy, but it’s manageable and we can do it.”

Jarrett said that with so many unknowns, it was hard to wrap his head around sending his kids to school right now.

“We’re being cautious. We’re not completely shutting down our lives. I coach baseball and wear a mask, and my daughter goes to gymnastics,” he said. “But we are trying to limit those interactions. I’m curious about what the school’s virtual learning platform is going to be. I hope it will be more robust than it was in the spring.”

That was one of the points made to parents during the press conference by new district Deputy Superintendent of Schools and Chief of Schools Duke Bailey III.

“You may be worried that the virtual experience that we are planning for this fall will look a lot like it did last spring,” Bailey said.  “It will not.”

The county board of education recently approved a one-year use of “K12 Learning Solutions Platform Board” for kindergarten through eighth grade. High school teachers will use the South Carolina Virtual Franchise learning platform, a program that was partially used in the spring and purchased in its entirety for use this fall.

“Both platforms are considerably more comprehensive than what was implemented last spring, and our implementation of them will be better and more consistent across the schools,” Bailey said.

Because learning will take place online, all K-12 district students are being issued a district device. The type of device varies by grade, but it will be a traditional laptop or iPad.

For those families without access to Wi-Fi, they may use school parking lots to download or upload materials and families that qualify financially may receive mobile hotspots distributed by the district.

One of the quandaries about virtual learning is how to teach some of the sciences and career and technical courses when hands-on learning is not an option.

Bruder said theory can be covered in the virtual setting, followed by simulated learning opportunities.

“Teachers are getting very creative with simulations and are employing the use of cameras. Of course, when face-to-face instruction resumes, physical in-person learning opportunities will also resume,” she said.

One of the methods to help teachers transition from in-person to virtual being made available by SCDE is online training on the state’s standards rubric and virtual teaching strategies. Created by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, the full series of three 90-minute virtual courses covers topics ranging from planning and delivering instruction, to providing an engaging virtual classroom environment. There are two separate tracks for principals and teachers to receive role-specific guidance, according to the Aug. 11 SCDE press release. 

The sessions are optional, and educators can decide when to take each of the three 90-minute sessions based on their schedules, with after-school, evening and weekend opportunities.

Information on the organization’s website, niet.org, notes that the three topics for teachers are: Planning for Virtual, Virtual Instruction, and The Virtual Environment.

Bruder said the district’s principals were sent the information to share with their teachers. Registration throughout the state quickly filled and the next available opportunities for the live-online courses are in October. The training is being funded by part the SCDE’s federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act allocation.

Two concerns that evolved out of the spring school shutdown were school meals and students who didn’t make roll call.

Bruder said that the distribution of meals that began with the pandemic shutdown will continue, and as of Aug. 3 the district has distributed 717, 459 meals.

“In terms of what we did regarding missing students, principals made home visits, reached out to neighbors, and coordinated with social workers. There are teams of personnel set up and ready to go to address this early on when we reopen,” she said.

That may be some time coming.

“Before that can happen and happen safely it must be safer than it is today,” said Rodriguez. “Based on data and science, we’ll decide whether to continue virtually or return to face-to-face instruction.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.