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Records suggest Greenville schools overstated public health advice in reopening announcement

Greenville County Schools headquarters

Greenville County Schools headquarters on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Trustees with Greenville County Schools met early Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, to discuss a range of issues amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

  • 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.

Greenville County Schools headquarters

Greenville County Schools headquarters on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Trustees with Greenville County Schools met early Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, to discuss a range of issues amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

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. 

7-day moving average of coronavirus cases among employees in Greenville County schools

The Greenville County Schools website tallies coronavirus cases reported daily among staff and students. The Post and Courier tracks the seven-day moving average of cases, a method that smooths out random dips and spikes in reports. Daily cases averaged close to zero in August among employees at the district's elementary, middle and high schools. They peaked at 28 on Jan. 4. SOURCE: Greenville County Schools

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 emails

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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.

Jan. 9, 2021, Greenville County Schools FOIA response: first email (Angie Mosely, re: back to school plan)

In a Dec. 30, 2020, email to Greenville County Schools Superintendent Burke Royster, board member Angie Mosely asks whether the district will be making an announcement about back-to-school plans after winter holidays. At the time, infection rates in Greenville County were at their highest since the beginning of the pandemic last spring.

Jan. 9, 2021, Greenville County Schools FOIA response: fifth email (Burke Royster)

In a Dec. 30, 2020, email, Greenville County Schools Superintendent Burke Royster tells board member Angie Mosely the district is reviewing input from DHEC, Prisma and Bon Secours to determine a back-to-school plan after winter holidays. At the time, infection rates in Greenville County were at their highest since the beginning of the pandemic last spring.

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.

Prisma emails

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.

Jan. 9, 2021, Greenville County Schools FOIA response: second email (Janet Lage, re: Prisma info request)

In a Dec. 30, 2020, email to Prisma Health officials, Greenville County Schools health services director, Janet Lage, asks for an update on the current status of bed capacity at Prisma facilities. The email was part of Lage's effort to prepare for a meeting the following day where district officials determined their back-to-school plans after winter holidays. At the time, infection rates in Greenville County were at their highest since the beginning of the pandemic last spring.

"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.

Jan. 9, 2021, Greenville County Schools FOIA response: third email (Prisma capacity)

In a Dec. 30, 2020, email, a Prisma Health official responds to a Greenville County Schools request for information about bed capacity at its facilities amid a surge in coronavirus cases. She describes it as "extremely limited" and says the hospital has declared an "emergency status" for its residency training program to help meet demand.

Jan. 9, 2021, Greenville County Schools FOIA response: fourth email (Prisma, re: National Guard)

In this Dec. 30, 2020, email, a Prisma official tells Janet Lage with Greenville County Schools that the health system is partnering with the National Guard to staff one of its hospitals.

Jan. 9, 2021, Greenville County Schools FOIA response: sixth email (Prisma, re: sports)

In a follow-up email on Dec. 30, 2020, a Prisma health doctor urges Greenville County Schools officials to "put a pause" on sports as coronavirus cases surge locally. At the time, infection rates in Greenville County were at their highest since the beginning of the pandemic last spring and bed space at local hospitals was "extremely limited."

 'No recommendation'

At 4:25 p.m., Royster wrote to the district's government relations director Julie Horton:

Jan. 9, 2021, Greenville County Schools FOIA response: seventh email (Burke Royster)

"So no recommendation regarding in person instruction," Greenville County Schools Superintendent Burke Royster writes in a Dec. 30, 2020, email in response to earlier messages from Prisma doctors. The doctors were silent on the topic of in-person instruction, having answered a district official's question about "capacity" within the Prisma Health System.

Jan. 9, 2021, Greenville County Schools FOIA response: eighth email (Julie Horton)

In this email late on Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 30, 2020, Greenville County Schools director of government relations, Julie Horton, confirms Prisma has taken no specific stance on in-person classes.

"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.

Jan. 9, 2021, Greenville County Schools FOIA response: ninth email (Janet Lage on PPE)

In a Dec. 30, 2020, email, Greenville County Schools health services director Janet Lage confirms to Superintendent Burke Royster that she explained the district's personal protective equipment protocols to Prisma Health.

The final email of the night was at 6:26 p.m. from Horton, telling Royster she heard from Bon Secours.

Jan. 9, 2021, Greenville County Schools FOIA response: 10th email (Julie Horton, re: Bon Secours support)

In an email Wednesday evening, Dec. 30, 2020, Greenville County Schools government relations director, Julie Horton, confirms she heard from a doctor at Bon Secours who said the school district's reopening plan would be okay if safety protocols are followed. At the time, infection rates in Greenville County were at their highest since the beginning of the pandemic last spring.

"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.

Zoom meeting

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.

Jan. 9, 2021, Greenville County Schools FOIA response: 12th email (Burke Royster, re: Prisma support)

In this New Year's Eve email at 6:31 p.m. from Greenville County Schools Superintendent Burke Royster to Janet Lage, the district's director of health services, Royster double checks whether doctors at Prisma "believed we should change course." His email was sent a few hours after the school district announced it would reopen schools as planned with elementary and middle school students attending five days a week at full attendance.

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.

Jan. 9, 2021, Greenville County Schools FOIA response: 13th email (Janet Lage, re: Prisma support)

Janet Lage, director of health services for Greenville County Schools, confirms in an email at 7:48 p.m. Dec. 31, 2020, to Superintendent Burke Royster that she had spoken with a Prisma doctor who told her she supports reopening schools five days a week "due to our preventive measures in place."

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."

Follow Anna B. Mitchell on Twitter at @AnnaBard2U.

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