COLUMBIA — Although Richland School District Two officials have waited longer than any other capital region system to begin a hybrid schedule, its Nov. 4 start date remains a sticking point for many teachers, who insist conditions still aren’t safe enough to warrant a return to classrooms.
A parade of educators pleaded with Superintendent Baron Davis and leaders of the state's fifth-largest district Tuesday night to remain fully virtual, pointing to escalating COVID-19 infection rates across South Carolina.
“We are being asked to sacrifice too much. How many dead teachers is too many,” said Kristina Chamberlain, who’s spent 12 years teaching in Richland Two. “If I die, my daughter has nobody. No family left. I feel like a pawn in a political game. I feel like a test subject in an experimental study that I didn’t sign up for.”
She was among nearly two dozen district teachers who expressed opposition to re-entering classrooms next week.
“If you need teachers so bad, you should care about their health and safety,” said Kendra Gandy, who teaches dance at Blythewood High School.
Under Davis’s plan, pre-kindergarten through fifth graders will return five days a week in “classroom communities” that keeps them clustered. Meals would be delivered to classrooms while face coverings and social distancing guidelines would be enforced.
Meanwhile, sixth through 12th graders would be split into groups that sends them to school in-person on two day rotations, with Fridays being a remote learning day for all.
Davis defended his reopening plan on Tuesday.
“This was inevitable, and we all knew it and we were all prepared for it. I will send three children to school every day. I will send a spouse to school every day,” he said. “I recognize the challenges and sacrifices that all teachers and employees have to make.”
The academic year launched Aug. 31 on a fully virtual plan for this district of 24,000. Board members have said changes to the school calendar are considered operational decisions that contractually fall to Davis.
Emotions in the district are running high. In September, Richland Two lost 28-year-old Demi Bannister, a popular teacher at Windsor Elementary School, to complications of COVID-19, three days after she entered the hospital. Bannister’s mother Shirley, 57, died of the respiratory condition 20 days later.
Several teachers with underlying health conditions said they were denied accommodation requests that would put them in lower-risk environments.
"Throughout this school year, Richland Two will lose many of its most talented and passionate educators due to the demands and treatment we are experiencing from the district. We do not want to quit, but we do want fair treatment,” Ashley Walker, a Blythewood High School teacher, said.
As of Tuesday, the state has reported more than 3,600 coronavirus deaths since the disease first emerged here, with 164,802 total cases.
Over a seven-day average, 12.1 percent of tests have come back positive — more than two times higher than the level researchers say is needed to indicate the virus’ spread is slowing.
Tuesday’s board meeting was conducted virtually — a point several teachers highlighted as they expressed concerns about heading back into schools. Roughly 14,500 students in the district of 24,000 will return to classrooms, while the rest are enrolled in a yearlong remote learning option.
“I do not think the data demonstrates that it is time to move (forward), but here we are. If I am being transparent with the board, I must tell you that I am afraid to go back to face-to-face-instruction at this time,” Katherine Perry, a Ridge View High School art teacher, said.
Board members requested a special meeting to learn more about the number of accommodations that have been asked for and either rejected or approved.
“I’m quite concerned about the amount of messages we've received from teachers with health concerns that have been rejected, but there are two sides to every story,’ said Monica Elkins-Johnson. “This really breaks my heart, but I also know that parents are demanding kids go back to school, so it's very tough decision to make.”