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HCS official says COVID-19 rise could be ‘fluke;’ teachers call decisions ‘mind-blowing’

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The Carolina Forest student section for a football game on Oct. 2, 2020, illustrated a lack of social distancing and mask usage. Both Horry and Georgetown counties have chosen to keep brick-and-mortar schooling despite the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases in both counties, with DHEC's data indicating both counties are "high spread," with both districts' back-to-school plan indicating all instruction should be remote. Nick Masuda/Staff

MYRTLE BEACH — Tensions are growing between school district leaders from both Horry and Georgetown counties and the teachers and families they represent, with COVID-19 protocols at the heart of the issue.

The situation has created trust issues for many, as both districts chose to not immediately follow their own return-to-school plans with the recent rise of the coronavirus in both counties.

Both Horry and Georgetown counties were deemed "high spread" for the coronavirus in Thursday’s disease activity report from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, which should have prompted schools to return to remote learning if the return-to-school plans were being followed.

But both districts decided to proceed with in-person learning, sending students to brick-and-mortar school two days a week.

At no point since late August did Horry County Schools publicly discuss changing the school reopening plan, leaving students and teachers in the dark on the sudden reversal of course.

HCS Board of Education Chairman Ken Richardson said being high spread one week could be a “fluke,” but if the numbers are high two weeks in a row, “we’re going to have to take a look at it.”

“I’m not a fan of sending the kids back home,” Richardson said of doing totally virtual learning. “I lean more toward what our own data says.”

Richardson said if there are schools with no cases, then it does not make sense to close schools across the entire county.

“It doesn’t make sense to shut down schools that don’t have a single case,” he said.

Richardson’s comments come amid a 10-day rise in cases in Horry County, averaging 69.3 new daily COVID-19 cases, a significant increase from the average of 23.8 in September and 38.5 in August.

On Oct. 10, DHEC reported 116 cases in Horry County, its highest single day since July 24 — or a span of 78 days.

"COVID-19 can potentially spread anywhere that people gather. When there are higher levels of transmission in a community, there is a greater chance that cases may be present in a school," DHEC told the Post and Courier Myrtle Beach.

Over the past 10 days, hospital bed occupancy has jumped back to more than 90 percent in both counties, with Tidelands Health indicating that it was seeing quadruple the hospitalizations in that time frame when compared to September.

Both Horry and Georgetown counties have shown a two-week incidence rate of “high spread,” which is defined as the number of cases per 100,000. The two counties are two of 23 South Carolina counties to fall into the category.

Horry County also has a 13.8 percent positivity rate (those tested over the past two weeks), while Georgetown County is at 10.4 percent.

Richardson expressed frustration, stating “it’s not fair” if people coming to large events in the county cause dozens of people to get the virus, and in turn impacts school closures.

In plain text, Horry County Schools’ original brick-and-mortar plan, which was approved by the South Carolina Department of Education, states if the county is “high spread,” school facilities will close, with no students in school buildings, though teachers would continue to report to their assigned classrooms. Students would be doing totally distance learning, the plan states.

Richardson said it would ultimately be a decision made by HCS Superintendent Rick Maxey on whether or not the district’s latest decision would be reevaluated.

Maxey did not return a message for comment.

“Not at all surprised by that,” one teacher said, adding that frustration with leaders is mounting among teachers and staff.

As of Tuesday morning, Horry County Schools have had a total of 30 student cases and 21 staff cases, according to the district’s online portal.

Georgetown County School District began the school year with schools having positive COVID-19 cases. As of Tuesday morning, there are six schools with positive cases, according to DHEC’s online data.

Georgetown County School District chose to send students to school who are enrolled in brick-and-mortar instruction this week, though the county is now considered high spread. The district’s “remote to prime” in-person program began Sept. 8 in the remote phase and weeks later shifted to the hybrid phase, sending students to school twice per week.

The district’s reopening plan states if the county is high spread, the district would shift to “Georgetown Remote,” stating “students will utilize virtual learning at home until disease activity level allows a return to hybrid or prime model.”

The school district has since added a clause to its press releases and messages sent to parents or guardians of hybrid students stating: "It should be noted that if Georgetown County were to return to a HIGH rating in the future it would not mean an immediate or mandatory return to REMOTE instruction."

GCSD Superintendent Keith Price said the district was encouraged by the South Carolina Department of Education to “do everything in your ability to not move backwards” after moving into in-person instruction.

Price said instead of just monitoring DHEC’s weekly activity reports, the district will monitor data school by school. The district has also sent a feedback questionnaire to parents and teachers, with results expected next week.

“We may have to move a classroom or a hallway or a school back into the remote phase, but not the entire county,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been monitoring since we’ve moved to hybrid. It may be more targeted than countywide.”

Districts across the state were asked to notify the Department of Education before making any operational changes, said Ryan Brown, spokesperson for the the department.

“We would support and encourage Horry and Georgetown’s decision to remain hybrid given the mitigation strategies in place and the success of other districts offering face-to-face instruction in similar circumstances,” Brown said, adding both districts notified the department of “operational decision making and planning for the future.”

Both districts have continued to host sporting events despite the “high spread” designation, with the Georgetown High girls volleyball team having to cancel its match with Carvers Bay due to a positive COVID-19 case.

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In addition, an ongoing Post and Courier investigation has also shown that both districts have struggled with health protocols with high school football, as Week 2 of the season showcased major shortcomings, while Week 3 saw two high schools throw caution to the wind.

Patience is wearing thin for parents, teachers

The instability of COVID-19 has drawn considerable concern — and ire — from the community, with HCS’ decision to not immediately move into remote learning due to “high spread” met with hundreds of comments on a public HCS Facebook post announcing the decision.

Most directed their frustration at the district’s decision to ultimately ignore its own plan — one that allowed parents to make an educated decision for their own children.

Gregory Evans, a father of children at Myrtle Beach Elementary, chose to put his children into HCS Virtual, but says the latest decision doesn’t seem to be based on science, but on politics.

“Parents and guardians made their decisions based upon the board's original decision. This is a worldwide pandemic, not a political agenda,” Evans said. “If the board chooses to ignore safety protocols, it gives a strong impression that they don't care about the health of students, teachers and faculty.”

Count Jenny Leckey, the 2018-19 HCS Teacher of the Year, among those disenfranchised by the district’s decision-making process.

Leckey, an English teacher at HCS Early College High School, says not abiding by the original plan is causing “unnecessary stress, unease and confusion” for teachers and students alike.

“We are expected to model data-driven teaching practices and we are expected to have consistency and clarity in our teaching structures for the ease of student learning during this difficult time,” said Leckey. “The frustration lies in that it is not being modeled by our district leaders. Taking number analysis into their own hands and backtracking on consistent adherence to the district plan makes me feel extremely uncomfortable and frustrated.”

Leckey admits that the chaos of teaching in the current environment doesn’t provide ample time for fleeting thoughts, and she's instead focused on helping her students make the most out of the current situation. But the dangers that are now inherent with the job can weigh heavily on her — as well as fellow faculty members from around the district.

“There are moments during class where I pause and observe the reality. The plan doesn’t match reality. Student A’s computer isn’t working. Who fixes it? The teacher,” Leckey said. “Student B has a question about a writing assignment and needs feedback. Who has no choice but to get within 6 feet of a student? The teacher. The scenarios go on and on.

“Now, you factor in the state-level data that indicates that our numbers are on the uptick; at the same time, your leaders decide to switch up how they use/apply numbers. It adds to the uncertainty and fear.”

Another HCS high school teacher — who asked to remain anonymous out of the fear of retribution from her school’s administration, as well as those at the district office — took exception to Richardson’s comments about the validity of the DHEC data.

“The board chairman’s comments about the data being false and making excuses is absolutely mind-blowing,” the teacher said. “We cannot manipulate the narrative that data is telling. HCS has been inconsistent regarding not just their own learning plan but their decision for virtual students also.

“It is not fair to the teachers who have to plan only for the week ahead because the future is unknown.”

The teacher also pointed to the ongoing inconsistency from HCS as troubling, focused mainly on the flip-flop the district introduced with allowing students to return to the brick-and-mortar option after initially choosing HCS Virtual.

“This virtual model which they, themselves, said students were locked in for one semester and then all of a sudden allowed to switch, another decision HCS was inconsistent with,” the teacher explained, also indicating that brick-and-mortar students are coded as “flu” when they miss class time due to COVID-19.

“These students who decided to change their learning plan, entered brick and mortar classes late and started with a blank slate. This is not fair to the students who were placed in brick and mortar from the beginning and had points deducted for various reasons.”

Asked if teachers had been approached about how to fix the current system, the teacher scoffed.

“No. That is not encouraged and teachers are afraid of being retaliated against if we do,” the teacher said. “There have been people who have been confronted by higher-ups regarding social media posts.”

According to HCS, they have not discouraged teachers from speaking out — albeit to their superiors or to the media.

To date, three different HCS teachers have indicated to the Post and Courier that this is not the case, being told to “stay quiet and do their job.”

According to the teacher, it has been difficult to sit back and watch those who are not in the classroom on a daily basis make unilateral decisions that affect the lives of thousands.

“Especially when they have no background in education,” the teacher said.

Leckey agreed, pointing especially to those who are elected, and the lack of communication.

“Especially given that many of those officials are elected by the public and are representing their constituents. From my observation with how humans have been reacting during this entire pandemic, they are craving transparency and honesty,” Leckey said.

Without a formalized union anywhere in South Carolina, Leckey said it's extremely difficult for teachers to band together — and “frowned upon” by the district’s leaders — to make their collective concerns heard, although she has heard chatter about potential walkouts if things don’t improve.

In the meantime, she says teachers are left to commiserate among themselves.

“I’m not the only one who feels this way. This is a mutual feeling amongst my peers across the district. From late-night texts to office conversations, there is a heavy weight that we are all carrying,” Leckey said.

“The uncertainty is eating teachers, administrators and students alive.”

Reach Nick Masuda at 843-607-0912. Follow him on Twitter at @nickmasudaphoto. 

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