What was supposed to be a post-pandemic return to school in 2021 has become a repeat of 2020, but without some of the safety precautions of last year. And with preexisting problems in schools having been exacerbated by the pandemic, many experts and school leaders have all but given up on hope for a safe return.

Still, teachers and administrators are doing what they can. Though legislative orders prohibit schools from implementing mask mandates in schools, most districts have formally recommended masking up indoors, and some school districts, including Richland and Charleston counties, have mandated masks in defiance of the legislature’s proviso. And, quarantine policies are still in place for those who have been exposed or infected with the coronavirus. 

Here’s a short list of some other changes parents and students can expect upon their return to schools this year.

Shortage of teachers getting worse

Even before the pandemic swept through South Carolina schools, the teacher shortage was an understood challenge that ultimately led to a number of hurdles for students and parents. And last year, South Carolina lost about 170 teachers each month from November 2020 to February 2021, according to research from the Center for Educator Retention and Recruitment, published March 2021.

Dozens of Lowcountry teachers had already left the classroom, resigning in the first few months of the 2020-21 school year. 

“We know a lot of teachers left last year,” said Charleston Teacher Alliance (CTA) director Jody Stallings. “We’re already seeing some problems from that, and one thing I think we’ll see are much bigger class sizes. The teacher shortage has always been with us, and this year is no different.” 

Stallings | Photo provided

Stallings, a teacher in the Charleston County School District, said while there are a lot of new hires coming on board, many of them are administrative coming from teacher ranks. This leaves many classrooms empty, and some class sizes inching over 30 students. 

“There’s going to be even less opportunities for social distancing,” Stallings said. “That’s something we can do though — use federal money to do everything we can to get teachers into classrooms so we can spread these kids out a bit more.” 

And with Plexiglas barriers coming down in classrooms and mask mandates in question for the time being, the lack of distance between desks could be a bigger issue than people anticipate. 

Virtual learning no longer an option for many

If mask mandate disputes and social distancing in schools drive families to put their children in virtual learning programs, schools risk losing funding they need to pull themselves out of the pandemic.

The state passed a new proviso that states school districts cannot have more than 5% of their student body enrolled in virtual programs or state funding will be reduced, according to district spokesperson Andy Pruitt. 

CCSD contracted with Low Country Virtual, a consortium of other districts in the state, to run a virtual program for K-8 students, and currently, more than 400 students are enrolled. But that is the only option offered for this group in hopes of keeping CCSD within an acceptable range to the state.

“Other than through the regional consortium, CCSD will not offer virtual remote instruction this year as an option for K-8 students,” Pruitt told the City Paper. “High school students can access virtual options through their school enrollment process.”

Achievement gap getting wider

The pandemic required many students to learn remotely, but what multiple national and statewide studies showed, and what teachers saw in their own classrooms, was those who learned from home fell behind students who didn’t.

But others say the gap already existed, and the pandemic only served to bring it to light. 

McIntosh | Photo provided

“While some folks understand we have had some gaps and some holes academically due to COVID, I would be hard-pressed not to point out these gaps have been there for quite a long time and not fully addressed at the state level,” said Mev McIntosh, a longtime North Charleston teacher who will be in a Berkeley County classroom this year. “If we’re going to talk about learning loss, we need to address the continued learning loss our children have been enduring for nearly 20 years. And in most cases, it’s children of poverty and of color.”

Fortunately, the federal government is providing a significant amount of money to address learning loss that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

CCSD is in the process of working on a plan to submit to the state for approval that details the use of the majority of the $163 million allotted for the district to address learning loss. And the district completed its Summer Enrichment Camps, a summer program for K-8 students to catch up over the break. 

State education reform still on the back burner

Before the pandemic, teachers and education advocacy groups like SC For Ed had multiple marches planned to demand reform in and out of the classroom. But reform took a backseat to safety precautions during 2020.

While many were hoping this year would bring more opportunities for education reform as schools moved on from pandemic protocols, the delta variant is ensuring that reform remains the No. 2 priority.

“Certainly a lot of things need to go forward, but it will be difficult to do that because teachers were at the limit last year,” Stallings said. “The anticipation was, coming back, it was going to be a lot better, but it really doesn’t feel that way.

“Our kids aren’t vaccinated. They seem to be getting COVID even more this summer with the variants,” he said. “For the first half of this year at least, everything else is going to take second stage to safety and academic acceleration.”

But even without large-scale reform, the pandemic highlighted the need for a greater focus on mental health in schools.

“We are also seeing, as educators, a serious uptick in mental health care prioritization and needs,” McIntosh said. “And this isn’t just in our students, but the parents and family members as well.”

Charleston school district dabbling with more nontraditional approaches

The new school year will also likely revive efforts to rethink how struggling neighborhood schools are run while also retaining accountability and classroom standards for students in need of a boost.

This year, Charleston County School District trustees took advantage of a new state law that allows designated “schools of innovation” to apply to have some state standards waived in hopes that the increased flexibility will boost student outcomes. Until now, such waivers were limited to charter schools. The district’s first school of innovation, North Charleston High School, has struggled for years as a high-poverty neighborhood school.

District leaders are optimistic the new approach can help the school change course while retaining control.

“One thing I really like about it is that it says that you can’t just apply for waivers and then come up with a plan. You have to have a plan to accompany your waiver requests,” Trustee Kristen French, a North Charleston resident, told WCIV-TV this month.

Still, public school supporters warn the measure could lead to even more outside involvement.

“We don’t want it to open the door for third-party private school operators coming in and taking over our neighborhood schools,” advocate leader Sarah Johnson told WCIV-TV.

That’s a reality Johnson and school district leaders may still have to reckon with, after years of fine-tuning a fledgling “acceleration” proposal for struggling schools that would use outside partners to stimulate growth.