MYRTLE BEACH — As images circulate showcasing third-party workers sleeping on plexiglass in the hallways of one school, as well as teenagers building plexiglass structures on campus during school hours — some without masks — the Post and Courier Myrtle Beach has exclusively obtained an online petition from teachers that will debut on Feb. 4 that calls for the Horry County Schools District Office to put an “immediate” end to all plexiglass installation at middle and high schools.
With full-time, in-person instruction returning at elementary schools across the district on Feb. 8, the petition addresses growing concerns among teachers, parents and staff as they embark upon classrooms that will have students less than 3 feet apart, with up to 30 students in the classroom.
The district’s push to follow suit, in short order, at middle and high schools has teachers and staff looking for a pause button amid feelings of being “disposable,” focusing their ire at the HCS Board of Education's support of the decision.
The petition calls for a number of items, including:
- Only professionals should be installing plexiglass, with all CDC health guidelines followed;
- Installation should not be happening during school hours;
- That all installations, including those already in place at elementary schools, should have a supervised inspection by the state fire marshal;
- That all staff involved in in-person instruction should receive an immediate hazard pay bonus of $1,000;
- That non-custodial staff, nor students, should be responsible for cleaning plexiglass
Concern from teachers and parents grew over the past 5 days after a post was made in a Facebook group, where a local contractor, Giacomo Servedio, made a call to parents for help in the construction of plexiglass structures.
He offered $14 per hour, with work hours being from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and the only requirement that workers leave cell phones in their cars, the ability to lift 25 pounds, and bring their own drill and knee pads.
According to the post, Servedio would connect interested parties with “who is in charge.”
HCS Board of Education Chairman Ken Richardson was among the first to respond to the post.
“Love this post. Parents wanting to help move things along faster. I’m not a big fan of the plexiglass but the quicker it’s installed in all schools the quicker everybody gets back to school,” Richardson posted in response.
A subsequent commenter asked “is there a minimum age for this?” A member of the group responded by saying “15 … my high schooler chips in when available.”
Attempts to contact Servedio were unsuccessful.
Video and photos obtained by the Post and Courier Myrtle Beach confirmed that teenagers were doing work in at least one local middle school, with the adults guiding the group not wearing masks, nor following social distancing guidelines.
Due to children being visible in the video, it will not be made public.
Teachers on campus are concerned for the safety of the students and staff, as well as the educational disruption, specifically those in middle school that are witnessing the rush to complete the installation.
“The no masks, no background checks and little security scares me to death. People are so quick to say that children don’t spread COVID. Adults most certainly do,” said Amber Wooten, a teacher at Whittemore Park Middle.
“And we have mystery adults in the building near children without masks? How would the school offices even know who was actually supposed to be there if all you need to do is show up to a school with sweatpants and a drill and say ‘I’m here to build plexiglass?’”
When asked if all contractors currently doing work on the plexiglass installation underwent background checks, if they check in at the school's front office and why work was not happening after school and on weekends, HCS offered a statement.
“All individuals, including contractors, coming on HCS grounds must adhere to the face-covering guidelines. Our schools' plexiglass installation is mainly done after hours and on weekends-our district contracts with several businesses throughout the school year to perform various services at our schools. Vendors/companies must adhere to our procurement guidelines as outlined in their contracts.”
The district did not volunteer the contract terms, instead indicating that they could be obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, a process that can take up to 40 days — a window of time in which the district intends to have the installation complete at both middle and high schools.
According to the South Carolina Department of Education, third-party contractors are allowed to be on campus.
“Plexiglass and other safety equipment is no exception,” said Ryan Brown, the chief communications officer for the South Carolina Department of Education.
“Face coverings should be worn by anyone inside a public school facility.”
HCS did confirm that it is working with Herald Office, A1 Signs and Tyson Signs to aid in the installation process, utilizing approximately $1.2 million in CARES Act funding the district received.
SCDE acquired $3.8 million in plexiglass on behalf of HCS.
A concern over safety
One of the petition’s demands is for a supervised state fire marshal inspection of all installed plexiglass, both already in place, as well as what occurs moving forward.
The supervision would come from a committee that includes parents, teachers and students.
An inspection is not currently in the plans, according to HCS and the SCDE.
“The District has not requested an inspection of the plexiglass. The plexiglass in schools specifications and parameters were set by a state agency (SCDHEC), and it was endorsed by another state agency (SCDE). HCS followed these guidelines and procedures in regards to plexiglass in schools. HCS will continue to follow the guidelines/regulations set forth by South Carolina statutes that pertain to emergency drills,” HCS said in a statement.
Brown confirmed that the last inspection request by HCS was on Nov. 18, 2020 for a portable classroom at St. James High School.
In addition to no inspections, teachers also object to having to clean the plexiglass, an ask that Daryl Brown, HCS chief officer of support services, confirmed at the HCS board meeting on Jan. 25.
Brown pointed to the unpredictability of custodial staff being out due to COVID-19 precautions, forcing the district to reach out to staff for help — in a year that teachers nor staff received a raise, with the district saying that “a change in an employee's compensation is a human resources matter.”
The petition specifically calls out positions that teachers feel should be in line for hazard pay.
“Teachers, support staff, classified employees, custodial staff, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and any other front line worker demand hazard pay in the form of a bonus to be given immediately. All employees should receive no less than $1,000 in hazard pay,” the petition said.
HCS would not confirm an exact number of custodial staff that is currently quarantined, instead saying that the district’s COVID-19 dashboard had general staff numbers at each school.
As of Feb. 3 at 3:35 p.m., HCS had 195 staff members in quarantine, in addition to 173 active COVID-19 cases — 123 with students and 50 with staff.
This number in quarantine has consistently hovered near 200 for weeks, leading HCS to send a note with best practices for cleaning plexiglass to each school’s administration, who then disseminated it to their respective staffs.
In one note sent to an elementary school staff, the principal said that the plexiglass cleaning would happen weekly, with those that have a homeroom combining with other staff to execute the task.
According to the note, the daily cleaning of classrooms comes from custodial staff that use electrostatic sprayers, which are not used in direct contact with the plexiglass, but “the electrostatic properties of the mist help to keep the area disinfected,” according to the principal’s note.
Any issues with the plexiglass is to be reported to the school’s principal, and not the district, while “students should be encouraged to refrain from touching the plexiglass shields and other surfaces to reduce the spread of the virus.”
Photos obtained by the Post and Courier Myrtle Beach have already shown pieces of the plexiglass structures peeling up from the ground, as well as video of some towers toppling over when tapped by a student.
According to the petition, the learning environment is a concern among teachers, with the structures impeding students and forcing them to use personal devices in order to learn.
“Plexiglass should be removed from classrooms where the students are learning via Google Meet while in the classroom because they cannot see nor hear their teacher,” the petition states.
Growing unrest with the board
The teachers’ petition isn’t the only call for change circulating within the county, as concerned parent Justin Yarbrough started a change.org petition during the first semester which has attained 1,282 signatures as of Feb. 3, calling for the district to “not cage our children.”
Yarbrough also spoke at the board meeting on Jan. 25, admitting to changing the direction of his comments after David Cox, the board’s District 4 representative, referred to parents as “bottom of the pyramid.”
While taken aback, Yarbrough said that it spoke to his greater concern — that elected officials aren’t listening to their constituents.
“Part of my speech was to ask them to sit down if they are not willing to speak to the people, for the people that voted them in,” Yarbrough told the Post and Courier Myrtle Beach.
“Because if they're not willing to speak to the people, for the people that voted them in. They shouldn't be there, because they're not doing their job.”
Cox caught others off-guard during the meeting’s invocation, when he referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus,” which has been deemed to be a racially insensitive comment by many communities.
The district did not condemn the words.
“As with all Horry County Board of Education meetings, they are open to the public and include discussions, comments, and votes by the elected Board Members,” HCS said in a statement.
Yarbrough isn’t alone in his quest for change, as local minister Wesley Finkley continued to be outspoken about the board showing support for students returning to the classroom full-time despite the worst month on record for new cases in Horry County.
Finkley continues to represent more than 700 community members in asking the district to hold off on the move.
“Horry County has thousands of doctors, it would have been nice if the board quoted them, or used them to make their decision. But again the agenda is not about safety, it's about resources and funding,” Finkley said.
HCS has pointed to DHEC as its partners in medical advice, but has not revealed its formula publicly in how it goes about making health-based decisions.
Ultimately that has left teachers such as Wooten feeling “betrayed” by the school board.
She pointed to the board’s promise of following data and adjusting the school instruction model accordingly, which is why she chose not to apply to be an HCS Virtual teacher, a trust she extended due to her belief that the “safer” call would always be made.
“Their decision hurts my heart and makes me angry, mostly because I truly believe it’s a political ploy — not a move out of genuine concern for students in this district,” Wooten said.
As Richardson now shifts part of his focus to take on Rep. Tom Rice in the 2022 congressional election — an announcement he made on Feb. 3 — and the board suddenly losing vice chairman John Poston due to COVID-19 complications, Wooten wonders what is ahead for students, teachers and staff throughout the county.
“I had no idea my students’ lives, my coworkers’ lives, my substitute teacher love-of-my-life’s life and my own life were measured in votes for a House seat and a popularity contest in a state that’s 48th in education,” Wooten said.
“I am aware now of our worth under this current school board. No amount of fogged-up plexiglass could obscure it. I’ve never felt so disposable.”