IRMO — Thousands of Lexington-Richland District 5 students will see their classroom time cut in half over the coming days after board members unanimously backed a plan Wednesday, a day after staff protests forced three high schools to close.
The board voted 6-1 in favor of a plan from Superintendent Christina Melton that trustees failed to act on Monday, triggering a teacher walkout.
The district is reducing the number of in-person instruction from four days to two days for seventh through 12th graders starting Monday in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. The revised schedule will be in place at least through Jan. 4. In-person classes could resume at four days a week after the winter break based on infection rates.
Districtwide, classes were set to start five days a week on Feb. 1, but that proposal may also be revisited over the next two months. Trustees meet again on Dec. 14, where Melton will present an updated re-entry plan.
"We are concerned about our staff being stretched too thinly. We have moved people around that are substitutes on a permanent basis but at what point do we say, 'This school is not safe,' " Melton said. "That's data you're not going to see, because there isn't a chart for that."
Quarantines in Lexington-Richland 5 jumped from 273 the week of Nov. 12 to 532 just before Thanksgiving, officials said. COVID cases have been reported at 22 of the district's 23 schools.
Alvin Pressley, the district's director of secondary education, said a mixture of in person and online classes for upper-level grades is beneficial because of larger class sizes and students moving from one classroom to another.
"Teachers would much prefer the face-to-face everyday, but due to safety reasons, hybrid lets them socially distance," he said.
Since Nov. 9, those in the 17,500-student district not enrolled in a yearlong virtual learning option have been attending in-person classes four days a week.
Students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade will remain on a four-day-a-week schedule, while middle and high schools go to two days a week.
Wednesday’s board meeting came a day after district officials were forced to close Chapin, Dutch Fork and Irmo high schools due to “sudden staff absences,” a coordinated call-out by employees to protest the lack of action thus far in reverting to Melton’s hybrid proposal.
On Monday, total staff absences across the district's middle and middle schools was 72, but jumped to 139 on Tuesday, officials said.
"I know all seven of us support and appreciate teachers," board chairwoman Jan Hammond said. "I know all seven want to support our superintendent, but they need all the facts in order to vote."
After the staff walkout, a student-led protest in front of the administrative offices ahead of Wednesday’s board meeting underscored tensions that have been brewing here for months with public sentiment split about whether the district should even be opening its schools at all.
"We are a divided community," said trustee Nikki Gardner, who voted against the measure. "I want us to recognize that going hybrid is not a magic bullet."
The rally drew about 70 students to the district's administrative offices, many with signs supporting Melton and urging trustees to support her proposal.
"It's hard to learn when you're scared about a virus you can't do anything about," said Chapin High School freshman Hannah Forrester.
Other placards encouraged officials to "Let Melton LEAD" and take seriously the health concerns of staff members.
"We just don't really feel comfortable staying four days a week. I think the disregard for the lack of safety of students and staff needs to be taken into account, because it's getting worse," Spring Hill High School senior Priya Desai.
The district opened its year Sept. 8 with an option for two days of in-person learning to a community split between demands of full-time classroom teaching and remaining fully virtual to avoid COVID-19 exposure.
South Carolina’s 12th largest district isn’t the only one in the capital region facing staff tensions due to public health policies.
Last month, a litany of Richland School District Two teachers lambasted Superintendent Baron Davis and board members, saying they’ve felt ignored in pleading for accommodations that would keep them out of classrooms as COVID-19 transmission rates continue to climb.
Richland Two lost Demi Bannister, a popular third grade teacher at Windsor Elementary School, to complications from COVID-19. The 28-year-old died on Sept. 7.
It remains unclear whether five days of in-person teaching will return to Melton’s district this academic year, but a pre-Thanksgiving order by Gov. Henry McMaster allows for rapid testing at all of the state’s public schools.
More than 220,000 of the nasal swap kits, which can provide results in about 15 minutes, are set for deployment through the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.