The Orangeburg County School District has entered into a partnership with Google to increase rural broadband access across the school district.
The partnership will outfit school buses with a high-gain antennas which will be stronger than a typical hotspot and have a greater signal range, allowing more rural students to have internet access, district Director of Information Technology Eric Ham said.
"This will give greater access for folks who may not have qualified for a hotspot," Ham said. While they will also improve connectivity for those who have used hotspots, “this will not replace the hotspots."
Ham said the buses will be placed at strategic places throughout the county based on where broadband access is most needed. The location of the buses and time schedules of their placement will be on the district's website and social media page.
About a dozen buses will be outfitted with the antennas, Ham said.
The district has used buses to help provide broadband to rural residents previously, but Ham said the new initiative will provide coverage of about 300 feet in radius from the school bus, or about a football field in length.
"Previously, you had to be kind of close to the bus in order to get a signal," Ham said.
The district will also continue its "rolling study hall" program where students who have long bus routes will still be able to access the internet while on the route.
The district will also seek to utilize community centers and churches to help to house the equipment. Students will be able to use these facilities for instruction.
Superintendent Dr. Shawn Foster said it will take partnerships for the district to help students.
"If we find a gap, then we can reach out to find those community partners to help fill that void," Foster said.
Foster gave Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, credit for helping connect the district with Google and to enter into the partnership.
The partnership will not cost the district.
"We are doing everything we can to ensure the academic success of our students as well as to look out for our staff," trustee Mary Ulmer said.
"None of us ordered this pandemic," Board Vice Chair Betty Pelzer said. "We don't want it. But what it has done, it has forced us to look at doing things a different way, which is not bad, as far as I am concerned."
"I know it is not perfect – I know there are issues," she said. "But there ain't no stopping us now and we ain't going back. That is just where we are."
Back to school
Foster said generally the transition of middle and high school students back to school a couple of weeks ago has gone well.
"You always have a few bumps because nothing ever goes 100 percent correct," Foster said.
Foster said there have been some minor issues with Microsoft Teams and internet connectivity.
Foster commended the district’s staff, principals and teachers for doing an outstanding job during the hybrid transition.
He noted the county remains in a medium level of COVID spread, which has allowed it to remain in a hybrid learning model.
He said the current status of COVID is that 20 students have tested positive, 27 have reported symptoms and 30 were sent home due to close contact.
He said the district continues to conduct contact tracing.
Students in Bethune Bowman, Holly Hill, Mellichamp and Rivelon elementary schools will all be able to participate in a math intervention program beginning in December.
The program, which is funded through the S.C. Department of Education, will be available from December to May of this year and the 2021-2022 school year.
The platform called DreamBox will provide students two to five lessons per week and can be offered face-to-face, in a hybrid or in a virtual model of instruction. The program will help students with math fluency.
The schools have been identified based on student test results.
Currently, the state provides an English language arts intervention program.
"If you look at literacy, a great supplement to literacy is numeracy," Foster said. "They don't operate in a vacuum. Our approach needs to be they need to run in concert with one another."
About 20 fourth-graders at Mellichamp Elementary School will be able to participate in a horticulture therapy program beginning in January.
The 15-week program will allow students to engage in gardening experiences virtually and receive counseling.
Parents and guardians of qualifying students will receive more details at a future date.
The three-year program is being made possible through the district's partnership with South Carolina State University's Counselor Education Program. It will be funded with a $500,000 grant from the state Department of Education.
College and career readiness
Five middle schools – Bethune-Bowman, Carver-Edisto, Elloree, Holly Hill-Roberts and William J. Clark -- will receive a Southern Regional Educational Board STEM grant to provide programs geared toward college and career readiness.
The program is also made possible by the S.C. Council on Competitiveness and the S.C. Department of Education.
Each school will receive $10,783 which will go toward equipment and training for the curriculum. Instructors will be trained at the University of South Carolina during the summer of 2021.
District Director of Secondary Schools Kelvin Lemon said the district will identify instructors and classroom space for the course. It will begin in the fall of 2021.
"It is a great opportunity for our students," Lemon said.
Male empowerment program
The district is looking to start a virtual male empowerment initiative for high school juniors and seniors. The program will entail 45-minute virtual sessions on Fridays and will include 28 students every six weeks.
Students will hear from local male role models and their stories about overcoming challenges.
The program will be in place for about a year.
The program was inspired by the Rev. Samuel Glover, the former District 6 commissioner for the South Carolina Department of Transportation.
Mental/social emotional learning
The district will look to provide mental health and social emotional learning support to faculty, staff and students.
District staff will also receive training on how to identify mental health and emotional needs.
Trustees praised the district's concern for the well-being of students, faculty and staff.
The district may also seek to do an outreach to parents and guardians to provide emotional support.
"There is this cloud," Pelzer said. "It is just sitting there and it won't go away. We are struggling. The community, we are struggling because this thing just won't go away. We want to get back to normalcy that is not there. We need to help each other."
In other business:
- Newly elected board members Peggy James-Tyler, District 4; Ruby Edwards, District 6 and R.L. "Poppy" Brown, District 8, were formally installed by S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty.
The District 2 winner, Sylvia Bruce-Stephens, will be installed at a later date because there was a recount for the seat. The recount has since confirmed her win.
- Trustees voted to give final reading to school district policies related to professional and classified staff leave of absences and the community use of school facilities.
- The board also agreed to elect officers every two years during the board's first meeting in January. Officers can serve consecutive two-year terms.
- Trustees entered into closed session to discuss personnel recommendations and contractual matters. They took no action when they returned to open session.