COLUMBIA — Three Lexington-Richland District 5 high schools were closed Tuesday due to what district officials called a "sudden increase" of staff absences. The closures happened a day after trustees failed to vote on a request by the superintendent to reduce the number of in-person class days as COVID-19 cases rise.
South Carolina’s 12th-largest district announced Tuesday that students at Chapin, Dutch Fork and Irmo high schools would be learning remotely because a large number of staffers were not coming to classes. The 17,500-student district has five high schools and plans to use Wednesday as a virtual learning day.
"The decision to close school buildings to students is being made out of an abundance of caution for school safety as several schools experience a sudden increase of staff absences on Tuesday," district officials said in a statement.
Superintendent Christina Melton suggested to trustees at a board meeting Monday that students in grades seven through 12 should return to a schedule that puts them behind desks just two days a week, down from the current four day in-person schedule that started on Nov. 9.
That change would have gone into effect on Thursday, but board members failed to vote on her proposal after more than three hours of deliberations.
After the staff shortage closed schools, the board announced plans to hold a special meeting at 4 p.m. Wednesday to revisit Melton’s plan, which also includes all schools going virtual Dec. 16-18 to assist with contact tracing efforts before students return from winter break.
Melton warned a spike in COVID-19 numbers and quarantines could leave the district's larger schools short-handed.
As of this week, 22 of the district's 23 schools have had at least one positive case, and the number of students and faculty in quarantine have doubled in the past month, as have the number of COVID-19 positive students, according to district data.
Sarah Gams, a Spring Hill High School educator who is the state’s 2021 Teacher of the Year, said she stood behind Lex-Rich 5 colleagues who called out of work Tuesday.
“Every single day is brand new, and the only thing we can continue to do is believe in the science, to see the number as they are, not as we wish they might be. It is survival,” said Gams, who was visiting multiple schools this week in her role as teacher of the year. “This is not an unreasonable demand. This is not a show of force. Teachers right now are leaning on each other more than ever in our careers.”
In a tweet on Tuesday, SC for Ed, an education advocacy group that organized the 10,000-strong teacher rally at the S.C. Statehouse last year, said it backs Lex-Rich 5 teachers.
"These educators expect the school board to follow the scientific data and guidelines to protect everyone," the organization said.
Dozens of emails were sent ahead of the Monday board meeting urging trustees to heed the safety concerns of staff members.
Trustee Rebecca Blackburn Hines said she wants administrators to provide more information on COVID-19 transmission rates even on a school-by-school level.
“When we’re talking about adjusting a re-entry plan there are a lot of people, they say, ‘Follow the science,’ and I absolutely agree, but we need to follow the data. But I need the data,” she said.
Trustee Nikki Gardner said the board has received emails and messages from teachers expressing concerns about COVID-19 safety at schools.
“I want to hold the district accountable to run the schools where the teachers feel safe, and there’s a disconnect,” she said.