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Most SC school districts oppose bringing back students amid coronavirus outbreak

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John A. Carlos II (copy) (copy)

State Superintendent Molly Spearman talks to reporters at the state Emergency Operations Center on Sunday, March 15, 2020, after Gov. Henry McMaster ordered all schools statewide to close. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post & Courier

COLUMBIA — South Carolina's K-12 teachers and administrators are anxiously awaiting Gov. Henry McMaster's decision on whether students will return to the classroom this school year, with most saying the health risks of resuming in-person teaching amid a pandemic outweigh the benefits.

The Republican governor, who ordered schools statewide to close through April 30, is expected to announce this week if he'll bring them back before students' summer break begins.

Doing so would make South Carolina an outlier. Other governors across the South have already declared in-classroom learning won't resume this school year. Tuesday's announcement from West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice left the Carolinas as the only exceptions. North Carolina schools are closed until May 15. 

It's a difficult dilemma for teachers who worry how their students are faring, both emotionally and educationally, under forced homeschooling that involves a mix of online learning, education packets and phone calls. 

"Every teacher would rather be back in school. Most teachers are putting in more hours and stressed out more right now than they would be," said Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association.

"But they're worried because a lot of them have underlying conditions or someone in their household has underlying conditions" that make them particularly susceptible to COVID-19 becoming deadly.

In a survey last week of school superintendents, 65 percent said they did not want schools to reopen, state Education Department spokesman Ryan Brown said.

Those against the idea include superintendents for the state's two largest school districts, Greenville and Charleston counties. 

"I do not wish to reopen schools until we have reasonable assurances that the health and safety of our students and employees can be protected," Charleston County School District Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait told The Post and Courier. "I will continue to confer with our Charleston area medical experts, and I will continue discussions about the operational issues of reopening schools safely with our CCSD principals, teachers, and staff. As has been the case throughout the COVID-19 crisis, I will offer my advice to state officials as it relates to decisions affecting the students under our care in Charleston County."

With an average school size of 700 students, and almost 80 students per school bus, "it's almost impossible to do social distancing," state schools Superintendent Molly Spearman told WIS-TV on Monday. "We understand that."

While she did not offer her opinion in the interview, many teachers drew comfort from her opening statement.

"We’re starting our sixth week of learning from home and have six more weeks to go," said Spearman, who declined another interview ahead of the announcement.

Referring to McMaster, she added, "We too believe our No. 1 priority is the health of students and teachers." 

Depending on the district, there are as few as five weeks remaining. Classes were set to end statewide between May 27 and June 8.    

Palmetto State Teachers Association Kathy Maness said her members have mixed opinions about returning.

Some teachers, especially those in the early grades and those teaching children with special needs, are itching to return out of concern for their students' welfare. But the inability to create and preserve adequate separation to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is a worry, she said.

Some teachers are responsible for 30 to 35 students per classroom, said Dottie Adams, a science teacher at Hand Middle School in Columbia. 

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"There’s literally no way to socially distance in a classroom that has that many students,” said Adams, a board member of the teacher advocacy group SC for Ed, which organized last May's 10,000-strong protest at the Statehouse.

The group encouraged McMaster on social media to close school buildings for the rest of the academic year. 

Adams said if McMaster does restart classes, "either the state department is going to have to give some really, really firm guidelines, or there's going to be kind of mass chaos."

"I'm not willing to risk my health to see if I'm somebody who is asymptomatic or I'm somebody who has to be hooked up to a ventilator," she said, adding that resuming classes could also risk the health of students, their parents and grandparents.

While young people typically don't suffer complications from the disease, some do, and they can transmit it without having symptoms. 

Fort Dorchester High School teacher Barbie Ross said "my heart says let's go back, but my head says not yet."   

"I want desperately to go back to school. I don’t like this in any way," said Ross, in her 32nd year teaching.

Ross said she's been able to stay connected with all 36 of her students through texts, phone calls and hand-delivering education packets to their homes, when necessary. 

"I've become quite the stalker," she said jokingly. 

But other teachers have completely lost contact with some students and their parents, Spearman acknowledged, while stressing that's a small percentage. 

East said that's happening at all levels, with some high school seniors completely "checked out." 

Spearman has previously announced that seniors must get their work done by May 15 in order to graduate. 

Regardless of this week's decision, school districts are preparing for non-traditional ways to hold or celebrate graduation for high school seniors.

Options being tossed around include continuing with a traditional ceremony but limiting the number of guests, live streaming a ceremony with only the students, scheduling a time for seniors to individually get their photo taken onstage, holding a drive-up graduation with each student in a separate vehicle, and delivering a graduation package to each student's home.

What districts ultimately decide will depend on the community and size of the school, Brown said.  

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

Jenna Schiferl was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina and is a graduate of the University of South Carolina. She has worked as an education reporter for The Post and Courier since 2019.

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