As Charleston County students return to the classroom full time after winter break, some concerned parents and educators say the decision to keep school open is a dangerous mistake.
Students returned to school in person Monday following two weeks of winter break. Most Lowcountry school districts, including Berkeley, Colleton and Dorchester District 2 opted to temporarily halt face-to-face instruction, citing fears of a post-Christmas spike in COVID-19 cases.
But even as other districts announced plans to switch learning models, Charleston County School District officials remained steadfast, sparking concerns from legislators, parents and teachers alike.
More than three dozen teachers at Charles Pinckney Elementary School in Mount Pleasant signed a letter outlining their frustrations. The message was sent to school principals, school board members and Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait. Several other similar messages obtained by The Post and Courier were also sent to district officials from educators this weekend.
"It is greatly concerning that the Charleston County School District has made a decision which does not seem to be in the best interest of the health and safety of our faculty, staff, students or their families," one letter read.
The district has reported 555 total COVID-19 cases associated with its schools since the start of the new year in September. Of those, 136 were reported over winter break, according to the district’s coronavirus dashboard.
The number of COVID-19 cases in the Palmetto State has climbed in recent weeks. On Monday, the state’s seven-day average rate of positive tests was more than 31 percent.
"There’s a lot of frustration, there’s a lot of concern and worry," Patrick Kelly, director of government affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, said of Charleston’s decision to keep schools open five days a week after winter break.
"I think that it’s really causing some morale issues with teachers, but more importantly I think it’s causing a lot of teachers to worry about the safety and health of themselves, their colleagues and their students," he said.
Charleston’s Chief Operating Officer Jeff Borowy said the district is well-equipped to bring students and staff back to school safely.
The district has installed more than 60 miles of clear plastic shields to separate students’ desks, he said, and teachers are vigilant about requiring students to wear masks inside.
During a Dec. 14 school board meeting, experts from the Medical University of South Carolina told board members that current data suggests the spread of the coronavirus within school settings has remained low.
Postlewait and other administrators used the guidance in its decision to continue with plans for in-person learning.
"Despite the rise in cases in Charleston County and in South Carolina, we feel very confident that the procedures and protocols that we have in place vastly outweigh the negative situation of sending kids out of school," Borowy said.
Other regions of the Palmetto State, including the Midlands and the Upstate, are experiencing a more severe surge in virus activity than what’s being reported in the Lowcountry, he said.
To date, the district has needed to temporarily shut down only one classroom as a result of COVID-19 spread, Borowy said. This situation was necessary not because of a high rate of spread among students, but because of a staffing issue.
Still, he said, there were some situations reported during the week of Dec. 14, right before students were dismissed for winter break, that might have been a cause for concern.
"Technically we haven't had an outbreak yet but ... the number of cases at particular schools, that might have resulted in a classroom closure, but we didn't have to because we were out of school," Borowy said.
As a rule of thumb, situations where there have been three cases reported over a two-week period in one classroom might result in a classroom closure, Borowy said.
"We’re looking at cases on an hour-by-hour, day-by-day basis to see if we need to flip that switch," he said. "But where we stand now, we strongly believe that we’ve managed this successfully."
Despite the recent outcry over Charleston’s reopening plans on social media, not all teachers agree that the district should return to virtual-only learning.
Jody Stallings, a CCSD teacher and director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance, said a recent study of more than 700 educators found that 50 percent believed that the district shouldn’t switch back to virtual learning during the pandemic. Thirty-eight percent said they supported online-only learning, and 12 percent said they didn't know what option was best.
"I just think there’s a lot of division. There are some teachers who are very clear that it's dangerous for us to go back and there are others who think it’s just the best thing for the kids," Stallings said.
But many teachers are fearful, Starlings said, and if schools are to remain open going forward, district leaders need to ensure that classrooms are being properly cleaned, students are social distancing and mask wearing is enforced.
"I think they see death. That’s the bottom line," Stallings said.
Board member Kristen French said the "vast majority" of parents and educators who have contacted her over the past several days have been very concerned about the district’s return to face-to-face learning.
Board members aren’t set to meet again until Monday, but French said she’s asked to schedule a special-called meeting before then to discuss COVID-19 spread and the district’s instructional model.
"When the community instance is high, we have to believe that it’s going to enter the schools. And it's in the schools, the more likely transmission is to occur in schools, so the risk is higher for everybody involved. Even though we’re using good practices. ... I think it would be really helpful if we dialed it back," she said.
Still, she said, switching everyone to virtual school would be a tremendously complicated task, and if the school were to reduce capacity by 25 or 50 percent, it would be hard to prioritize who gets to stay in person and who doesn’t.