Cherokee County public school students will return to classrooms on Aug. 3 after the board of education on Thursday unanimously approved the superintendent’s reopening plan.

School board Chairwoman Kyla Cromer called a special meeting to vote on the plan and hear public input on it. A total of 29 people signed up to address board members about the reopening plan. In response to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, schools were closed in March and instruction shifted to online learning.

“I’ve heard overwhelming support for the decision,” Cromer said. “The teachers I’ve heard from are ready.”

Many of the residents and school system staff who spoke to the board urged them to make wearing of masks mandatory.

On Wednesday the Cherokee County School District revealed Superintendent Brian Hightower’s recommendations, which call for schools to reopen Aug. 3 with in-person instruction. Parents can opt to enroll their children in digital learning from home instead, and must sign up to do so by 5 p.m. next Friday, July 17.

Under the plan approved Thursday night all campuses will reopen with traditional in-classroom instruction.

Wearing face coverings to combat spread of the novel coronavirus will be mandatory for faculty and staff when social distancing is not possible. It is recommended but not required for students.

The school system would provide two reusable masks for both employees and to students. If the federal or state governments mandate wearing of masks, the school system would abide by that rule, officials said in an online Q&A. Hightower said the system is also buying more than 2,000 face shields.

Social distancing will be encouraged, but cannot be guaranteed because of space and other considerations, according to the Q&A. “When possible, we will move desks apart and use other common-sense practices; due to space constraints as well as the nature of teaching and learning, we will not be able to consistently maintain six feet of distance between students or six feet of distance between students and teachers or other staff who work with students,” the Q&A reads.

Students will not have to submit to a temperature check prior to boarding school buses or entering school buildings, according to the Q&A. But parents are urged to take their children’s temperature before sending them to school. Fever is a symptom of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Each classroom will be supplied with sanitizer spray and the school system’s janitorial contractor will maintain extra staffing and sanitize buildings, according to the plan.

“We know this plan isn’t perfect, and we know it won’t please everyone – that is an impossible task,” Hightower said. “We know there are parents, students, teachers and staff who are worried, and I understand that – we are living through a pandemic. We may start up school and then have to quarantine a class or a school or multiple schools. The Governor may mandate masks or he may shut us down. This school year will be unlike any other any of us have ever experienced.”

In an online message to school system parents and the community, Hightower urged unity.

“Four months ago, we gave you one day’s notice that our schools would close. Our students, families, teachers and staff all showed flexibility as we transitioned to digital learning with little notice. As I’ve shared before, I am deeply grateful for all of the patience and grace everyone showed each other during that challenging time,” Hightower wrote.

“As we prepare to begin our new school year, I’d ask you to please continue to keep those words in mind: flexibility, patience, grace. The virus doesn’t care about our plans, and we may find ourselves in situations where our plans must change, again with only one day’s notice.”

Hightower said during the meeting that based on feedback received in Cherokee and other area school systems, officials are expecting about 20 percent of students will begin the year opting for online instruction.

As of Thursday night, Cherokee County had seen 46 deaths linked to COVID-19 and 1,621 coronavirus infections. Statewide there have been nearly 3,000 deaths linked to COVID-19 and over 135,000 nationally.

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