Superintendent Chuck Epps is shown talking to School Trustee Brian Murphy and a staff member after Tuesday night's meeting. (Photos by Greg Rickabaugh)

The Fort Mill School District announced its latest reopening plan Tuesday night after a dramatic board meeting that started with emotional appeals from parents and teachers on all sides of the reopening debate.

Despite Gov. Henry McMaster’s announcement last week demanding an option of five full days of in-classroom, face-to-face instruction for every student, the Fort Mill School District will only delay reopening until Aug. 31. The district will continue with the previously announced plans to offer parents either a virtual academy or in-school instruction, with one adjustment:

Elementary students will return to class following the Family Model with an A/B Model Schedule for the first four weeks of school. Superintendent Chuck Epps said this will allow students time to acclimate to the new learning model and the new daily protocols. But elementary students will return to a full face-to-face Family Model beginning the fifth week of school, on Sept. 28.

In middle school and high school, students will be assigned to the “A Day” group OR the “B Day” group. This will be done by alphabet of the student’s last name. All schools using the A day / B day model will use the same groupings. Students will be assigned to their group as soon as possible, but it will not occur until after the second registration window for the Fort Mill Virtual Academy closes.

A/B days will be continuous throughout the week. The district will release a calendar marking the individual days as A or B.

The district’s window to sign up for the online Fort Mill Virtual Academy has already closed, but the district will reopen it Wednesday morning and close it at 6 p.m. Friday (July 24).

The new calendar includes an Aug. 31 start date for all grades. The additional five instructional days for students in Kindergarten through Eighth grade (LEAP Days) included in an earlier legislative bill, will be held Aug. 31–Sept. 4. These five days are designed to provide time for student evaluation, review and remediation following the need for distance learning during 2019–2020 school year.

The approved changes include moving the school start date to Monday, Aug. 31, the end date for High School students to Friday, June 11, 2021, and the end date for Elementary and Middle School students to Friday, June 18, 2021.

The Fort Mill School Board approved the changes to the school calendar. School board chairwoman Kristy Spears said the trustees have no say in the operation of the schools other than the calendar, addressing demands by some teachers that schools remain closed with only a virtual learning until it’s safe to return.

Before the meeting, a few dozen teachers stood near their cars in the parking lot demanding the schools remain virtual until it is safe to return. Organizer Beth Swann handed out a document that said every educator deserved a choice to protect their health.

The flyer listed three big reasons most teachers in Fort Mill don’t feel safe: “The pandemic is raging unchecked, yet some parents & kids do not want to comply with a mask mandate. Social distancing will be difficult to enforce. One sick child in class one day could force a teacher to use up all allotted sick days.”

Yet, a counter-protest of unmasked parents argued that teachers had an obligation to do their jobs and return.

“It is their job. Any other company, that would be a pink slip (to protest),” said Dana Boutwell, a parent of four boys in the school district. “The district needs to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with the teachers.”

Dana Boutwell, with sign, said her four sons are all begging to return to class and sports activities. She protested outside Tuesday’s board of trustees meeting and spoke later to the board.

The board meeting, broadcast live-stream by both the school district and the Fort Mill Sun, included a look at the new desk shield and a presentation on all the social-distancing and cleaning supplies being purchased. Leanne Lordo, with the district’s Finance & Operations, presented a request to transfer $1 million to the new budget year to allow for additional COVID-19 Response-related items.  The Fort Mill School Board approved the transfer.

This new chair shield was made especially for Fort Mill School District by a North Carolina manufacturer.

The new calendar is shown here.

Parents should expect a flurry of communications from the school district in the coming hours and days.