MYRTLE BEACH — An elementary school teacher was asked to remove a video from her personal Facebook feed by the Horry County Schools District Office on Friday afternoon, with the 82-second video questioning the way that plexiglass was installed at Forestbrook Elementary.
Teresa Holmes, a fifth-grade teacher, showcased the “prison-like” structures in her classroom, questioning whether any member of the HCS Board of Education had sat in one of the desks, pointing specifically to the obstructed views of the classroom white board due to the plexiglass.
She also tagged Ken Richardson, the BOE chairman, in the post, who responded that someone from the district office would contact her.
According to Holmes, that contact was not about fixing the problem, instead a message that was delivered through Forestbrook’s principal, who indicated that the district wanted Holmes to “take it down, and don't make it look like something negative.”
“Well, guess what? I feel that it is negative,” Holmes told The Post and Courier Myrtle Beach.
Holmes said the district indicated they wanted it removed due to being posted during school hours. She would eventually acquiesce with the request to jettison the post, but only due to her good relationship with her principal.
But she has no regrets about posting it.
“I'm to the point where this is impacting the children that I teach and the children that live in my house, my own children,” Holmes said.
HCS did not respond to multiple attempts for comment and clarification about the request for post removal.
A tete-a-tete growing between HCS employees and the district office continues to boil over publicly, with the video just the latest squabble. Last week, a group of teachers called for the resignation of Velna Allen, the district's chief officer of student services, after she allegedly told staffers not to speak to the media.
The demand got no response, and instead she attended the first board meeting of the year in place of Superintendent Rick Maxey, who announced he had contracted COVID-19.
Ahead of Tuesday's return to the classroom, the BOE is also facing mounting pressure from local leaders to pause the push to return to brick-and-mortar instruction, with some feeling "it appears the community and parents don't have a voice." In addition, some teachers feel that there are legitimate safety concerns surrounding the plexiglass structures that are set to be finished for elementary schools by Jan. 18.
The mounting conflict between district administration and its employees, as well as the public, is palpable.
"It’s become about politics, not safety," Holmes said.
Back in the building — early
Holmes gained access to Forestbrook Elementary after spending the past two weeks at home due to a district mandate, with all teachers instructing virtually due to skyrocketing positive COVID-19 cases throughout the county.
That districtwide order originally extended to Jan. 19, when HCS would return to hybrid instruction.
On Friday, principals around the district were given permission to communicate with teachers to allow them to gain access to campus early.
“It is optional for teachers to go in their classrooms as long as they continue to follow health and safety guidelines,” an HCS spokesperson said. “The retrieval of items needed would be a quick process.”
Holmes said that she needed to see it prior to welcoming her students back to the classroom for the first time in nearly six weeks.
In the weeks leading up to Winter Break, Holmes spent time preparing her students for the installation of the plexiglass, showing them pictures of how other districts were utilizing the structures. They had plenty of questions about how they’d interact with Holmes, as well as classmates.
Upon seeing it, a few looked at her and said, “it’s going to look like going to prison.” And while Holmes tried to put on a smile, Friday was sobering.
“I tried, I tried to fall in love with it with the idea of it. I just can't like what I walked in and saw today,” said Holmes, who is teaching despite a breast cancer diagnosis at the outset of the school year, defying doctor's suggestions.
Safety concerns abound
Upon seeing images circulate online Friday and visiting their classrooms, a pair of employees reached out to The Post and Courier Myrtle Beach stating that they believed that there are fire code violations due to the plexiglass installation.
“This plexiglass needs to be checked by the fire marshal. You cannot move around the room. If there is a fire, we won’t get out,” one employee said.
Horry County Fire and Rescue referred all potential fire code inquiries to the S.C. Department of Education, as the county doesn’t have a fire marshal.
Ryan Brown, chief communications officer for the DOE, said while HCS did order nearly $5 million worth of materials through the state, all installation was the responsibility of the HCS maintenance department.
Brown indicated that the DOE’s Office of School Facilities provides certificate of occupancy after new construction, improvement and renovation projects, as well as a local fire official making a routine inspection.
Plexiglass does not fall within any of these categories, and therefore would not be subject to any of these reviews.
“OSF, at a district’s request, can do a courtesy visit or virtual observation, but we have not received such a request from Horry County Schools or any school district related to plexiglass installation,” Brown said.
In December, The Post and Courier Myrtle Beach talked to a pair of medical experts, both of whom pointed to the lack of data to support plexiglass being a true barrier for students and teachers, while also indicating that the installation is more of a "placebo" instead of a scientifically proven way of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Clean or not to clean, that is the question
Forestbrook Elementary wasn’t the only school in the spotlight Friday, as teachers at Waterway Elementary received a note from Principal Melissa Graham that listed an entire checklist for teachers to follow.
Among the plexiglass rules from Graham:
- Don't move the structures without two people, and students can't help.
- Use internal technology to help students if they can't see the board.
- Don't use chemicals to clean the plexiglass. Use warm water.
According to multiple teachers across the district, warm water is not readily available for cleaning, with even Brown indicating that it wasn’t plentiful for employees at the state office.
Holmes talked to custodial staff at Forestbrook to find out the plan for the elementary school, which includes a spray that will combine water and Dawn dish soap, utilizing a squeegee to wipe it down.
She immediately questioned what that would do in rooms that have carpet.
“You’re going to have a mold issue, and we’ve already got plenty of those within the district,” Holmes said.
HCS is facing two mold lawsuits, one from a former teacher and another filed on behalf of a student.
According to Holmes, some teachers have already been asked to clean their classrooms, bringing about some logistical questions for many.
At Forestbrook, there are grade levels that move classrooms, and one teacher has been told that they will be responsible for cleaning the plexiglass in between periods — all of which come with no time in between the switch.
Students still must maintain social distancing when on campus, meaning that teachers will also have to monitor those hallways during the cleaning.
Once inside the classroom, Holmes says that if schools go back to full-time, in-person instruction on Feb. 1 like Richardson has suggested publicly, there will be next to no space in between students and teachers — indicating that in her own classroom, it'd be less than 3 feet between students.
“I'm not really sure how that's gonna work because they don't really tell us anything to help us prepare,” Holmes said.
A community’s concern — ignored
Employees aren’t alone in their growing concern about the decision-making stemming from the HCS District Office, with local minister Wesley Finkley sending a note to the entire school board on behalf of nearly 700 community members, which included parents, teachers and local business leaders.
In the note, which came prior to HCS’ decision to return to hybrid instruction on Wednesday, Finkley pleaded with the board to keep students on a virtual schedule.
He indicated that the group took a vote, and the majority thought it was unwise to keep sending children to school.
“School is not a baby-sitting service and parents should never think it is. Our teachers, parents, and communities are exhausted and frustrated by the Board’s lack of certainty and decision making," the note read.
Finkley’s note said the group feels that schools should remain virtual “until at least March,” pointing to additional data being available at that time, as well as potential impact of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The group met a second time, with Finkley providing an update to the board, focused on a growing sentiment in the group that putting children and teachers back in the classroom is a financial one.
“We are asking this board to stop playing politics with people's lives, and stop selling out our teachers and kids for funds. We understand when the government gives you funds to stay open, but we are strongly asking that you go virtual,” the note read.
Despite the notes, HCS announced on Wednesday that students in hybrid instruction would return to the classroom on Tuesday.
This comes amid 137 current COVID-19 positive cases within the district, including 90 students and 47 staff members. In addition, 171 staff members are quarantined, including 36 at the district office.
HCS does not report students in quarantine.
Finkley’s note received a response from HCS board member Neil James, who pointed to his wife being a longtime Horry County educator, as well as his niece being named “Rookie of the Year” with HCS as reasons for his understanding for what teachers face on a daily basis.
“I regularly receive input from well intended parents, teachers, and community members and I carefully discern each input along with my personal beliefs to reach a decision,” said James, who indicated he normally doesn’t respond to mass emails.
“I firmly believe the best instructional methodology is in-person instruction and certainly want to get back to that as soon as possible. This year has been uniquely challenging due to the virus and its impacts and we are in unchartered waters.”
Finkley was far from satisfied with the singular answer he received from the board, puzzled by how James’ wife being a former teacher applied to this situation.
“Maybe I missed it in Mr. James’ reply, but it appears the community and parents don't have a voice,” Finkley told The Post and Courier Myrtle Beach. “I really don't know what his wife who retired several years has to do with a global pandemic and these unprecedented times. We know big money was given to open schools.
“If the board is basing their decision on health organizations, then the decision should have already been made."
‘I’m very disheartened’
Left with no choice but to report back to the classroom, Holmes is emotional, breaking down while talking about the trials and tribulations she has faced this year, including losing family members to COVID-19 in the past week.
“I’m very disheartened,” said Holmes, who believes that an investment should have been made into ventilation and not plexiglass. “I'm not really sure why they think we are invincible. I just think that they don't care."
Holmes wasn’t alone in being upset by HCS’ decision to return to hybrid instruction, with others echoing her sentiments.
“It’s shameful we are going back right now,” one teacher said.
“I have mixed emotions. I know so many students who are really struggling through distance learning but I am concerned about the health of teachers and students being back in the building together when the numbers are so high,” another offered on condition of anonymity.
Holmes is adamant she doesn’t mind being in the classroom, as she sees the value of teaching face to face, and believes that Forestbrook has handled hybrid instruction well.
However, she is worried that she and other teachers are the forgotten element with the decisions to return to school, as COVID-19 has proven to be deadly for adults, with local facilities such as Conway Medical Center seeing a rise in the hospitalization of younger adults in recent weeks.
“The virus doesn’t just impact our elderly, in fact we’ve seen more cases of those in their 30s and 40s over the past few weeks,” said Dr. Paul Richardson, CMC’s chief medical officer. “Teachers and staffers definitely fall into the categories of people that we’ve seen.”
Despite the rising risk, Holmes knows that hundreds of teachers will show up on Tuesday, putting their own health aside in favor of making the best of the situation.
“You know school supposed to be a place you want to go to a new love,” Holmes said. “You know you love being there with your friends and you love your teacher and you know you're able to do fun things and learn a lot.
“How does this nurture a love of learning for these children? It doesn’t.”