- Public health officials won't confirm they told school leaders that reopening schools would mitigate community spread of coronavirus
- District says some advice came orally and is not reflected in documents
- Parents demand more data, more transparency from district and reduced attendance amid surge in cases locally
- District backs off of truancy rules, says parents can keep kids home if they work it out as an excused absence with principals
GREENVILLE — Emails exchanged ahead of a decision to reopen public schools for in-person classes amid a record coronavirus surge suggest district leaders exaggerated when stating that a failure to open would "make the situation worse."
In a Jan. 4 Freedom of Information Act request, The Post and Courier asked to review communications from or to Greenville County Superintendent Burke Royster pertaining to the plan for resuming classes after the winter holidays.
The district wrote in a New Year's Eve announcement that it received its guidance from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, Prisma Health and Bon Secours. In its FOIA response to The Post and Courier, the district undertook an email search between Dec. 29 and 31 for those names as well as terms such as "attendance," "in-person," "advice," "re-opening" and the names of public health officials with whom the district has worked with on pandemic policy.
The search results produced a 10 a.m. digital meeting appointment for Dec. 31 and 13 emails sent over 33 hours on Dec. 30 and 31 that contained or alluded to advice from medical officials.
The Post and Courier was trying to confirm the following claim that the district made in letters to parents and employees on the afternoon of Dec. 31:
"The obvious question for many of you is, 'Why return when numbers are so high?' The simple answer is public health officials believe (and we agree) that a failure to return to school will make the situation worse, because it is clear our community has not been following pandemic guidance over the last 10 days. When students and employees are in school for 7-1/2 hours each day where protocols are implemented and monitored, those actions help to mitigate the spread of COVID in our community, as compared to when individuals are free to gather with little to no monitoring."
A review of the emails found the district could not back up the claim: None of the emails said reopening schools would mitigate the spread of coronavirus, and none of the emails said a failure to reopen schools would make the coronavirus surge worse.
Privately, school officials have said much of the advice they receive from doctors and epidemiologists is oral — gathered on phone calls or Zoom meetings. But representatives from DHEC, Prisma and Bon Secours would not confirm having offered the district this advice.
"The majority of our advice comes over zooms and phone calls," Teri Brinkman, the district's director of communications, said Wednesday in response to The Post and Courier's reporting. "We believe we have been told multiple times very pointedly that it simply makes sense that when you have 60,000 people following protocols 7-1/2 hours a day that it helps with community spread."
Brinkman said these particular conversations are not reflected in the emails provided to The Post and Courier because dialogue between the school district and public health officials was ongoing and not always documented in writing.
"These emails were written before we knew this was going to be a point of contention," she said.
In the emails, two school administrators summarized conversations they had with doctors saying kids were just as safe in school as they were at home. Other emails from medical personnel at Prisma emphasized overloaded hospitals.
Just one email offered direct advice from a doctor about school operations: A doctor at Prisma said the school district should consider temporarily suspending sports during the surge because of the inability of athletes to wear masks.
Sports have continued.
Asked Tuesday about the lack of documentation to back up the district's Dec. 31 letters to employees and parents, Royster stood by the district's decision to reopen schools as planned. He said he was focused on whether students and staff would be safe. Had anyone from the medical or public health fields advised Greenville County to keep schools closed, he said, they would have closed.
The reopening plan for the state's largest school district affected about 52,000 students attending in-person classes in Greenville County, about 35,000 of whom are in school five days a week.
That the advice coming from public health officials didn't match what the district said in its letters was, Royster said, a matter of semantics.
On Tuesday, Royster cited three studies, from the CDC, Duke University and Iceland, that show strong evidence that in-school infections are rare, backing up results from his district's own contact tracing.
Pushback from parents, teachers
The district's claims of mitigating coronavirus spread with its back-to-school plan has helped fuel criticism of the district at a time when hospitals are overrun with cases and the Greenville metropolitan area is one of the leading coronavirus hotspots nationally.
The SC for Ed teacher advocacy group issued a statement on Sunday applauding districts that have remained virtual and saying it is "irresponsible, dangerous and unacceptable" to reopen for in-person instruction before steps are taken statewide to reduce coronavirus spread.
"The suggestion that students and school staff are safer FROM CORONAVIRUS in a 75-100% capacity school building rather than eLearning is absolutely ridiculous," parent Katie Halstensgard wrote in public comments shared with the school board on Tuesday. "And it just doesn't add up."
Nine other people — parents, a teacher, a teacher's spouse and a teacher's mother — also submitted comments to board members opposing the district's move to reopen as planned last week. No one submitted comments Tuesday supporting the district's decision.
Halstengard also penned a petition calling for more transparency in the district's decision-making process. As of Tuesday, 4,153 people had signed.
Another group of parents circulated a community survey on Sunday targeting the Greenville County Schools attendance plan. Preliminary results late Tuesday of the more than 1,100 who responded showed two-thirds were unhappy with the school district's current attendance plan and preferred a temporary return to all eLearning or reducing attendance to 50 percent. The district appeared to be responding to parent demands that they be able to keep their children home amid the surge when on Tuesday the superintendent said they could work it out with principals to have the absences excused.
The good news is cases appear to be abating in the schools. The school district's COVID dashboard, which crashed last week when hundreds of families submitted coronavirus reports from the holidays, showed student cases dropped from a seven-day rolling average of 76 last Friday to 57 on Monday. Staff infections in schools, meanwhile, which saw a seven day rolling average peak at 28 on Jan. 4, were down to 13 on Monday.
Still, parent David Wood, who has two sons in the school system, said the dashboard should include community metrics and quarantine numbers as well — measures of the pandemic's impact on the school district that the superintendent shares every few weeks in updates to the school board. The dashboard currently shows only students and staff who are infected and where they work or go to school. It lumps virtual and in-person staff together and does not distinguish between teachers and other staff.
A schools spokesman told The Post and Courier on Dec. 31 that the critical metric for keeping schools open now is staffing classrooms. The dashboard does not provide the data that would tell you if a school closure due to staff absences — because of infections and exposure-driven quarantines — is imminent.
Brinkman said the district has debated posting quarantine numbers but that the general consensus is that people tend to conflate those with infection numbers.
Laura Black, a special education teacher in Greenville County Schools since 1998, wrote to the school board this week saying she has lost confidence in coronavirus data itself.
"I feel the district has bent the numbers and statistics to please parents and politicians," she wrote in public comments posted online on Tuesday.
The school district responded to The Post and Courier's FOIA request Saturday with 13 emails sent over the course of 33 hours on Dec. 30 and 31.
The chain began at 11:04 a.m. Dec. 30 when Angie Mosley, a new board member who advocates five-day attendance, asked Royster whether the district would issue a statement about schools reopening.
Royster responded to Mosley at 1:27 p.m. that his team would meet the following day to look at employee absences and to review input from their three public health partners.
At 11:19 a.m., the district's head of health services, Janet Lage, asked a Prisma official for "an update on the current status on capacity within the Prisma Health System."
Three emails from three different Prisma officials, their names redacted, followed at 12:08 p.m., 12:11 p.m. and 2:20 p.m. Lage did not ask for advice on in-person classes, and the topic was never raised.
"The current capacity at Prisma Health is extremely limited," the first Prisma email said. "Due to the lack of ICU beds and hospital capacity, we have partnered with the National Guard to open up Alternate Care Sites across the Upstate."
"To clarify, we have partnered with the National Guard on staffing at one of our hospitals and are working with the State Emergency Management Division on possible Alternate Care Sites," the second Prisma email said.
"I personally would like to suggest the schools consider a pause on team sports since it disrupts cohorts of students that you have worked hard to create and also has them unmasked for times of close and prolonged contact," the third email said.
It goes on to add advice on how best to wear masks and face shields.
At 4:25 p.m., Royster wrote to the district's government relations director Julie Horton:
"So no recommendation regarding reducing in person instruction," Royster wrote.
Seven minutes later, Horton responded that Prisma told her about acute staffing shortages, adding: "No specific recommendations other than the sports rec below."
The Prisma email about "putting a pause on team sports" was attached.
At the same time, at 4:33 p.m., Lage wrote that she had updated Prisma on the school district's use of masks.
The final email of the night was at 6:26 p.m. from Horton, telling Royster she heard from Bon Secours.
"She talked to [redacted], and he said his position has not changed — that he believes kids and teachers alike are safe in school, if protected as we have been doing," Horton wrote.
The next morning, according to a printed calendar invitation, Royster and 15 other Greenville County Schools administrators met for an hour over Zoom to talk about the back-to-school plan. No notes from that meeting were provided.
Hours later at 6:31 p.m. Royster reached out to Lage.
"I don't believe I misunderstood but to confirm neither Dr [sic] at Prisma believed we should change course, correct?" he wrote.
Lage responded at 7:48 p.m.:
"I spoke with [redacted] specifically about return to in person school 5 days a week and she supports that course of action due to our preventive measures in place."