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Greenville middle schools to return to class full time, but COVID spike could scrap plans

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Burke Royster middle school horizontal

Greenville County School District Superintendent Burke Royster speaks in front of district headquarters about returning middle schoolers to in-person learning, November 16, 2020.

Greenville County middle schoolers will return to full-time, in-person instruction beginning next week but with a sobering forewarning as coronavirus infections reach record highs.

If fears of holiday gatherings causing an additional spike in cases prove true, the plans to bring back roughly 22,000 students in the district's 20 middle schools in full come the new year could be scrapped, Superintendent Burke Royster said Monday.

“This is going to be particularly important with the coming Thanksgiving holidays and the coming Christmas, winter break holidays," Royster said, speaking outside the district headquarters. "In fact, we may have to ask people to make adjustments with less than a week’s notice if we see things moving quickly in the wrong direction.”

For the past several weeks, new cases in Greenville County — outside of district schools — has been heading in the wrong direction, rising higher than the summertime spikes.

The state's three other largest counties — Richland, Charleston and Horry — have seen increased daily cases since summer but not record levels, according to state Department of Health and Environmental Control data.

For instance, Greenville saw 301 new cases 10 days ago, 275 this past Friday. The highest number of daily cases during the summer was 263 on July 7.

However, Royster said that Greenville schools have proven to be safer than exposure in the community, with protocols that involve plexiglass shields, masks, social distancing and sanitization.

The move comes at a time when the recent elections saw three new school board members who ran on platforms of all students returning full-time, and as the number of failing grades reported thus far for students doing virtual learning has increased compared to last year.

The failing grades, in large part, are the result of students not turning in work, Royster said.

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In response to the failing grades, middle and high school students will be offered tutoring on Fridays with transportation provided.

Earlier this year, the district set forth its roadmap for how often students would attend in-person, which involved the rate of new cases in the community. Cases are now at levels that would have had the district scale back face-to-face learning, but officials say that the district's safety protocols have proven successful enough to continue.

Importantly, DHEC has told the district that the plexiglass installed allows 3 feet of distance between students as an equivalent to the Centers for Disease Control guidance of 6 feet, Royster said.

The challenge all along with bringing middle schoolers back, he said, has been that they change classes, unlike the elementary students who stay in one place. Older students are also more independent-minded and less likely to comply with mandates like wearing masks.

The plan would bring the younger middle school grades back first in the weeks leading to winter break, with an eye toward every middle schooler in-person on Jan. 4. 

In the meantime, the district will evaluate how more high school students can return in-person. Currently, Royster said, students are in the schools 40 percent of the week. The hope is to increase that to at least 60 percent.

The high school conversion likely wouldn't take place until after the new year, but he said an announcement will come before winter break.

“Having them face to face we believe is vitally important," Royster said, "so long as we can do it in a way that keeps them and keeps our employees safe.”

Follow Eric on Twitter at @cericconnor.

Reporter/Local Editor

Eric is a reporter and local editor for The Post and Courier in Greenville. Previously with The Greenville News, he's covered the Upstate for two decades and served as a USA TODAY correspondent. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina.

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