Fort Mill SC school board talk break calendar, COVID plan

The COVID-19 pandemic changed public education, and took much of it online. So, what does increased virtual capability mean for the childhood institution — the snow day?

The Fort Mill school board ventured into that topic Tuesday night. The board approved initial drafts of both a 2021-22 and 2022-23 school calendar. Included are days the district could use to make up lost time for storms or other events that close schools. Such days have long been part of district calendars.

Yet last March when the coronavirus pandemic took hold, schools throughout the area and country abruptly went online. When school returned this fall, about a quarter to a third of students in most area school districts chose virtual learning for the current school year. Students who have returned in person spend or have spent many days in online learning.

With the district able to hold school without students and staff at school buildings, snow days come into question.

“I’ve heard some conversation about, does that mean kids never get a snow day again?” said School Board Chairwoman Kristy Spears.

At least one board member hopes not.

“I know there’s other more important, big issues out in the world today,” said board member Brian Murphy. “But you are saying we still could have a snow day?”

Snow days are more than just interruptions to a school calendar for Murphy.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I have really good memories as a kid, and even as an adult, of the snow day. Right? Just the random day you wake up and there’s wonderful white stuff everywhere and you go out and play in it and freeze your digits off, and come back in and drink hot chocolate.”

The pandemic lesson in virtual learning could impact snow days, but is unlikely to eliminate them. If there’s a blizzard forecast, and the district knows ahead of time, schools may opt for virtual instruction. Teachers and students would have time to prepare lesson plans and technology.

A sudden or less-predictable flurry, would less likely lead to a virtual school day.

Spears envisions the possible snow storm that materializes, the kind that sends parents’ cell phones ringing into the evening or early morning with news of a school cancellation.

“In which case we would probably not make that very next morning a virtual learning, because nobody was prepared for it,” Spears said.

Superintendent Chuck Epps said virtual learning already is in place, so the option to turn a looming snowstorm into virtual days isn’t new. This school year saw weather cancel a school day in late October, in Fort Mill and throughout York County.

“We have the option right now,” Epps said.

District public information officer Joe Burke is the voice parents hear on recorded messages when school is canceled. Burke and district leaders say plans for makeup days and calendar adjustments have to consider what impact those changes have on students and staff.

“You’d want to have as much preparation as you could so the lessons are useful, and not just make up a day to make up a day,” Burke said.

COVID school calendar impact

The school board saw draft calendars Tuesday, and will vote on them Jan. 19. Burke said the two coming school years would have almost identical calendars.

“This is all contingent upon being able to shift back to a normal year,” he said.

Several schools in Fort Mill and neighboring districts have transitioned to full virtual as positive case counts spread. The district is hopeful the 2021-22 year will more resemble a pre-pandemic, traditional calendar.

They know it will arrive quickly.

“It is going to be a shorter summer,” Spears said. “We do get out later this year.”

Area districts had several start date changes this school year related to the pandemic. The result is a later last day, which shortens the summer break, and plans to start 2021-22 on a more normal schedule. There are other factors to consider before the vote, like the long stretch between winter and spring breaks or the split schedule that puts more days in the second semester but allows high school exams before Christmas.

Board members are hopeful any changes would be of the typical year-to-year variety, and not forced on them by pandemic.

“We know that we don’t know exactly what things are going to look like this summer,” Spears said. “Kind of like what happened to us last year. We had to change it.”

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John Marks graduated from Furman University in 2004 and joined the Herald in 2005. He covers community growth, municipalities, transportation and education mainly in York County and Lancaster County. The Fort Mill native earned dozens of South Carolina Press Association awards and multiple McClatchy President’s Awards for news coverage in Fort Mill and Lake Wylie.
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