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Columbia mother, daughter educators changed lives. Then they died from COVID-19.
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COLUMBIA — Hours after her only child, Demi, died from COVID-19 on Sept. 7, Shirley Bannister entered a walk-in medical clinic for a test and learned she contracted the virus.

Shirley would die 20 days later from the infection that claimed her daughter and more than 3,400 other South Carolinians.

“There are times I tend to forget that this is actually real," said Shayla Jones, Demi’s cousin and Shirley's niece. "Sometimes we felt like they just went somewhere. They took a trip and they’re going to come back.

"They took a trip, correct, but Heaven doesn’t have a return policy."

Relatives and friends of the Columbia-area pair say they try to see the graciousness from the mother and daughter who fell to a virus that has swiftly caused so much suffering.

Neither “could keep their goodness to themselves. They had to share it,” is how pastor Warren Bolton put it at their Oct. 2 funeral, where they were laid to rest in matching rose-covered caskets.

John A. Carlos II 

Martha and Shayla Jones look at baby photos of their relative Demi Bannister, who died on Sept. 7 from COVID-19. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

The Bannisters shared backgrounds in education. 

Shirley was 57 and ran the nursing department at Midlands Technical College. She always loved helping others, relatives and friends said, deciding to train nurses after overseeing them for years at the S.C. Department of Mental Health.

Demi was 28 and taught third graders at Windsor Elementary School. She decided in college she wanted to share her passion for education with children.

During the memorial service at Columbia’s Bible Way Church of Atlas Road, Christina York, a fellow third grade teacher who worked with Demi for two years, clutched her cellphone to her heart and wept as she read one of the final text messages Demi sent her.

It was a poem, jokingly wondering about the status of their friendship. The educators spoke almost daily but that tapered off over the summer.

“I had a friend named Christina, she was one of a kind," the poem begins. "She was always there for me, in the nick of time, she always had advice to help me be my best, I haven't heard from her in a while, I guess our friendship is at rest."

'Joyous spirit'

The computer in Shirley’s darkened Midlands Technical College office remains on, its desert landscape wallpaper casting a muted glow across her desk.

Just a few feet away, her framed degrees rest on a mahogany shelf: one from May 5, 1993, when she earned an associate’s degree in health science from Midlands Tech and another awarded seven years to the same day, a bachelor’s degree of nursing from the University of South Carolina.

"The Bannister Beauties," a group of students she taught during the first semester of 2016, wrote her a poem. It sits next to her diplomas.

“For someone who had such a joyous spirit to not be here, it’s really kind of a vacuum," Midlands Tech chief academic officer Dianne Carr said. "There’s just such grief and there’s, I think, a lot of gratitude for the life she lived and the life her daughter lived."

John A. Carlos II 

Martha Jones wears a mask with photos of Demi and Shirley Bannister. Jones is Demi's aunt and Shirley's sister-in-law. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

Twenty miles away, the third grade hallway at Windsor Elementary School is lacking the sing-song voice of a passionate teacher everyone called Demi. Sometimes, Demi would add an improvised dance to her routine and, most always, a laugh.

“She was the life of Windsor, she was the life of the third grade hallway whether she was singing, dancing, laughing or talking, she made her presence known,” York said. “Her students loved her, and so did I.”

Demi's last day in Room 506 at the school off Dunbarton Drive in Columbia was Aug. 28, as she prepared for her fifth year teaching. School started Aug. 31, but because of Richland School District Two's COVID-19 precautions, classes began remotely.

A week after her last visit to Room 506, on Sept. 4, she tested positive. She never saw her students face-to-face.

Losing Demi was unbearable for Shirley, colleagues said. Soon, Shirley herself was hospitalized with complications from the virus. 

“The fact she lost her daughter, I don’t think she felt she could move forward,” said Candace Doyle, dean of Midlands Tech’s School of Healthcare.

Loss of a teacher

Last year, Demi’s creativity made her a viral sensation after she wrote an original song to the tune of Lil Nas X's “Old Town Road” as part of a school attendance campaign.

The video has been viewed more than 1 million times across social media platforms: "I'm on my way to Windsor, 'cause I can't get a tardy no more / I got my books all in my bag, homework is attached," Demi sang over the rap song's beat, students dancing behind her. 

“The children that she has impacted will always remember that Ms. Bannister was my biggest cheerleader,” Windsor Elementary Principal Denise Quickel said.

Demi’s death underscores the balancing act school districts across the country face as they consider when to reopen classrooms. According to the American Federation of Teachers, 210 of its members have died from COVID-19 related complications since the spring.

USC Aiken mourns graduate, South Carolina elementary school teacher who died from COVID

The death of a South Carolina elementary school teacher this week has left the USC Aiken campus in mourning.

Demetria “Demi” Bannister, 28, was diagnosed with coronavirus on Sept. 4 and died Monday, Richland 2 School District spokeswoman Libby Roof said in a news release.

Bannister was a third grade teacher starting her fifth year of teaching at Windsor Elementary School in Columbia, the Associated Press reported.

Prior to her teaching career, Bannister attended USC Aiken. She was involved in Voices of Praise Gospel Choir, participated in talent shows and was a sorority member.

She led a song during the Omega Phi Alpha national convention in 2014 in Indianapolis, according to USC Aiken.

She was described as a “sweet, sweet person who had the voice of an angel.”

Demetria would go into the campus' gym and sing as passersby would enjoy hearing her.

After graduating from USC Aiken in 2016, her love for music and teaching continued.

She would often incorporate music into her classroom activities and led the school choir.

“Demi was an amazing person whose smile would light up the room. Her incredible voice and love of music permeated her classroom, which benefited all learners in her classroom. She will be missed,” Dr. Judy Beck, dean of the School of Education, said in a USC Aiken statement.

The spread of COVID-19 has been of great concern from both students and teachers as classes resume across the state.

The Aiken County Public School District has reported 11 positive COVID-19 cases across nine schools and the transportation department between Aug. 30 and Sept. 5.

Richland 2 officials said Bannister’s parents gave them permission to share details about her death and her life to remind people how serious COVID-19 is and the need to continue to take all precautions to stop the spread of the virus, according to reports by the Associated Press.

"While gone from us too soon, Ms. Bannister’s legacy lives on through the lives of the students she taught in her five years as a dedicated educator,” said Dr. Baron Davis, superintendent of Richland 2 school district.

Nearly all Midlands school districts have either sent or have plans to return students to classrooms on hybrid or full-time schedules by month’s end.

Richland Two begins in-person learning on Nov. 4. 

Lexington-Richland 5 Superintendent Christina Melton referenced Demi’s death when announcing her district’s expansion to in-person teaching four days a week.

“I have no idea what Richland School District Two experiences with the loss of a teacher. I never want to be that superintendent,” she said during a Sept. 28 board meeting.

Demi was memorialized on the S.C. Statehouse floor Sept. 17, where Democratic state Rep. Kambrell Garvin of Columbia, her lifelong friend, remembered her as an exuberant, warm soul. Lawmakers stood on the House floor in a moment of silence.

Demi, who called him “Kampster,” took a selfie with Garvin and his wife, Monique, at January's Pink Ice Gala. It was the last time they saw one another.

“She could captivate any audience, whether it be her students or a crowd at a show,” he said at Demi's funeral service. 

'She deserves everything'

Shirley was equally inspiring, those who knew her said.

Mary Ashley, who took a course from Shirley her sophomore year, donated blood for the first time in honor of the professor who worked to get students into health care facilities during the midst of a pandemic.

“She really advocated for her students. We probably wouldn’t be in a clinical setting if she didn’t fight as hard as she did for us, with COVID (happening) and everything,” Ashley said. “I hadn’t lost anyone I knew to COVID, so me and my clinical group, it hit us kind of hard.”

Just two semesters away from graduating, Ashley said Shirley's natural instincts and leadership makes her desire to be a nurse even stronger.

“She deserves everything,” Ashley said.

Before arriving at her alma mater, Shirley was well respected for her devotion to the principles of nursing. She spent decades within the state’s Department of Mental Health and was director of nursing at its C.M. Tucker Center from 2010 through 2013.

“Nursing is more than doing an eight-hour job. It’s about giving back,” Shirley said in a 2012 agency profile of the center.

“Shirley’s dedication was shown in everything she laid her hands on,” said one of her closest friends, Stephanie Kemp, who prayed with Shirley in the hospital the morning she died. “Her goals and ambitions were to see people succeed in life.” 

'Shines their light'

In Midlands Tech President Ronald Rhames’ office, an electronic picture frame shuffles through photographs of Midlands Tech’s people and places. Now, he has a favorite one. There’s Shirley, smiling under a white hard hat.

“It will remind me of how she touched my life,” Rhames said.

Before she died, Shirley was organizing a blood drive, urging students and faculty to donate. After her death, Midlands Tech leaders wondered if they should conduct the event without her.

Rhames decided to move ahead and hold the blood drive. He also named it in her honor. Pre-registration for the two-day event tripled.

Relatives said naming the drive after Shirley was a fitting tribute.

Adam Benson / By Adam Benson abenson@postandcourier.com 

Mary Ashley, a Midlands Technical College nursing student, donates blood in this Oct. 13 photo at a drive named in honor of Shirley Bannister, the school's nursing department head who died of COVID-19 on Sept. 27. Adam Benson/Staff

Jones, Demi’s cousin and Shirley's niece, has been struggling to find meaning in their departures.

“We’ve prayed a lot more since all of this. It has been a truly difficult time for all of us, but we can find more good than the bad,” she said. “We’ll talk to anyone because it shines their light. They were truly great people.”

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Richland County insists it's ready for absentee voting boom despite past election woes
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COLUMBIA — Richland County has a decadelong history of embarrassing slip-ups and oversights, the most recent in June’s primary, that has some voters anxious as record absentee voting continues across South Carolina.

“That’s why I’m voting early, because I’ve heard what it was like," Jan Casey, a first-time Richland County voter said on Friday as she waited to cast an in-person absentee ballot at the department’s Hampton Street headquarters. "But you’ve got to trust sometimes."

Those fears were not allayed as some voters complained about delays in getting mailed absentee ballots. That led to more voters, like Casey, heading to one of the county's seven in-person absentee polling sites, resulting in long lines at times. Satellite precincts already are averaging about 550 voters daily.

Alexandria Stephens, Richland County’s newly installed elections czar, said she believes the county has made changes to avoid mishaps with better-trained staff, more equipment and improved communication with a Minnesota-based vendor generating mail-in ballots.

Stephens said she feels "a lot of people have calmed down" after some initial angst. 

"People are trying to get out and vote,” said Stephens, who was hired away from Jefferson County, Ala.

As of Oct. 16, more than 75,000 ballots have been issued in Richland County, including 45,000 requests by mail. Stephens expects that figure to jump with a second wave of applications ahead of an Oct. 24 deadline for mail-in ballots.

About 55,000 Richland voters cast ballots absentee in 2016.

The county has 2,100 poll workers lined up to work on Election Day, Stephens said — 600 more than four years ago.

“We are very much on target to have a lot of votes cast before Election Day, which should remove a lot of the crush, even if we have huge turnout,” Duncan Buell, a member of Richland County’s voter registration board, said in a Friday meeting.

Lexington County’s election officials have been busy, as well, already issuing 28,000 ballots. That’s compared with 27,532 ballots completed for the 2016 general election.

The county is operating five in-person absentee voting sites.

Statewide, with a little more than two weeks before Election Day, absentee voting is setting records. Just over 655,000 ballots have been issued for early voting this year, including 420,000 by mail. That compares with 517,000 total absentee votes in the 2016 general election, and 147,000 cast via mail, according to S.C. Election Commission data.

Meanwhile, local law enforcement agencies told the Richland County board that they’ll respond quickly to any voter suppression complaints, and authorities are monitoring social media platforms to identify potential threats.

President Donald Trump has asked supporters to monitor polling places for potential fraud.

Richland County sheriff’s deputies and Columbia police officers have been issued guidance on how to respond if such an incident occurs.

“I think we need to be prepared,” Sheriff Leon Lott said at the board meeting Friday. "At this point, there's been absolutely no word anybody's going to do anything."

A smooth, uneventful Election Day would be a change of pace in Richland County.

In 2010, the county certified incorrect election results after 1,100 votes were not counted. Two years later, Richland County failed to deploy enough machines, leading to excessively long lines, and missed the state’s vote certification deadline.

The county needed state help after missing a recount deadline in the 2016 primary, and more than 1,000 ballots were not counted in the November 2018 election. That incident led to the director leaving and Gov. Henry McMaster firing the entire county election board.

The June primary was marred by an extreme shortage of poll workers because of COVID-19 fears, reports of people receiving incorrect ballots and hourslong waits at polling places, with some voters casting ballots after midnight. The state Election Commission stepped in to assist the county with the runoff elections later that month.

Robert Rikard, a Columbia-area attorney, said he's hopeful local election officials have a handle on this year's process, but remains wary.

He requested a mail-in ballot in August; it arrived to his home on Oct. 13.

"We were just anticipating that voting was going to be a nightmare," he said. "I'm just concerned with the delay it took them in getting them mailed out. That does not give me a lot of confidence they will count them in an orderly fashion."

The last batch of absentee ballots were shipped Oct. 12, said Wendi Breuer, president of SeaChange Print Innovations, which prints and mails Richland County's ballots. Voter data files were transmitted to the company on Sept. 28 — later than in other places, but due to a special election that month to fill the seat of Richland County Council member Chip Jackson, who died Aug. 13, county elections officials said.

State Rep. Seth Rose, a Columbia Democrat, said he reached out to several of his constituents who said earlier this month that they hadn't received absentee ballots. By mid-week, many of them received their ballots.

S.C. Elections Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said state officials have been in regular contact with the Postal Service and remain confident in its ability to handle the influx of mail-in ballots.

Recipients of mail-in ballots can drop them off at polling locations if they worry about U.S. Postal Service delays, election officials said. 

Ronda Page believes the Postal Service will ensure all ballots are delivered on time but didn't want to take a chance. She stood in line Friday to vote in person at Richland County’s main voter registration site.

“Using machines to vote, how could they (ballots) not be counted," she said.