In a preview of things to come, elementary and middle schools across Greenville County opened their doors to students this week for the first time in five months.
It was just orientation, but it gave Principal Dawn Hooker at East North Street Academy in Greenville a trial run as she prepared for classes to begin in earnest next Monday.
It was quiet.
As she spoke, voices came crackling over a walkie talkie at her side. Her assistant principal, Cory Terry, popped in for instructions on how to alert teachers discretely that lunch would be served this week in classrooms.
“We are a very loving place in elementary school,” Hooker said. “It is very, very hard not to hug my students.”
Greenville County’s school district — in the midst of a pandemic — will be among the first round of South Carolina public schools to launch fall classes.
Hugs are forbidden, and recess will be supervised with organized games and the occasional yoga lesson. Mommies and daddies won’t be able to have lunch with their kids or walk their Kindergartners to the classroom. Attendance will be less than a fifth what kids are accustomed to, so friends will be missing. Custodians will wipe down doors with disinfectant. Everyone older first grade will wear a mask, and some will have on face shields, too.
With one eye on Georgia — where loose regulations on masks and social distancing to begin school preceded a wave of infections — and another eye on consistently high but recently improving South Carolina infection figures this summer, Greenville County schools look far different from the day they shut down on March 15.
Enrollment figures are fluid for the state’s largest school district as Greenville area families continue to make decisions about public versus private school, or home school. Greenville school district officials estimate 76,700 children will attend public school this fall.
Of those students, 30 percent will take all of their classes on a computer at home. At some schools in the district, up to 40 percent of students opted for this all-online “virtual academy.”
That leaves just under 54,000 children whose families have opted for in-person classes in Greenville schools this year.
East North Street Academy Principal Dawn Hooker poses during a short break on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, as she and her staff get ready for the first day of orientation at the elementary school in Greenville, South Carolina. With coronavirus still widespread in the county, a hybrid schedule of online and in-person classes will launch Aug. 24 in the school district.
By Anna B. Mitchell
The school district is starting the year under a rolling schedule. A quarter of “in-person” students, sorted by their last names, are in school on any given day. This is called Plan 1, and refers to the number of days a child attends classes at school each week. They finish their work at home the rest of the week.
Middle- and high-school classrooms normally packed with up to 30 students will have eight at most under Plan 1. Elementary kids are looking at five to seven students per class. If the district moves on to Plan 2, two days a week, class counts would roughly double.
East North Street Academy, a school that typically has 770 students, expects just 100 to arrive on the first day of school, the school’s principal said.
Safety is the first lesson
COVID-19 precautions will be everyone’s first lesson.
“We will be spending a good bit of time, those first several times we see them, talking about masks and social distancing and how to walk down hallways,” East North Street Academy science teacher Kurt Blocher said. “We will be reiterating how to be safe and respectful of each other in terms of safety.“
Masks can only come off if everyone in the room is standing more than six feet apart. Students breaking these rules face punishment, Greenville County Superintendent Burke Royster said. They also risk exposing their classmates and teachers to infection and quarantine.
The school district is following state quarantine guidelines if anyone at a school reports they are sick. Quarantines will vary from 10 to 24 days depending on the level of exposure.
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Students will sit in assigned seats, likely all year.
“That is for contact tracing,” Mauldin High band director Adam Scheuch said. “So in case somebody should test positive, everybody will have a very systematic way of knowing who is close by.”
Absences won’t be counted against students, who will be expected to turn in work. Teachers might have to dip into sick days if they run out of emergency coronavirus leave, but failing to report exposure could cost them their jobs, Royster said.
Single dad Bruce Wilson, who has three children at Thomas E. Kearns Elementary, said he worries about his children attending in-person classes — one of them is asthmatic — but he said he also feels like the school district is doing the best it can. Wilson has a daughter who works with a speech therapist and responds best with face-to-face sessions.
“The boys are a little nervous,” Wilson said. “They just talk about … they talk about death. It’s unfortunate to hear your children talking about death.”
Community spread declining
Every Monday, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control issues a community spread rating for each county in South Carolina. This rating leans on the number of COVID-19 cases over the previous 14 days and the percentage of positive tests. Over 200 cases per 100,000 people is high, as is over 10 percent positive return on tests. An upward trend in cases is also counted as a high factor.
Greenville County on Monday fell to a medium community spread because its cases fell below 200, a significant shift from its high rating all summer. Greenville is now among only seven counties in the state at medium.
This shift could pressure school officials to increase days at school to two —Plan 2. Under a strategy approved earlier this month by school trustees, Royster is allowed, but not required, to enact Plan 2 under medium spread conditions.
Plan 1 prevents the kinds of crowds that made national headlines in Georgia, where some schools started then had to shut down because of coronavirus spread.
Greenville County Superintendent Burke Royster sits at his desk in the school district’s headquarters near downtown Greenville on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.
By Anna B. Mitchell
More kids means more risk, but the schools can still physically keep everyone six feet apart under Plan 2, Royster said. He promised to give parents five days’ notice whenever he does change the attendance plan.
Parent Andrea Martin Bowles said she understands the district’s measured approach but said she could not manage the unknowns and lack of consistency for her three daughters, all of whom are in high school. All three enrolled in the virtual academy.
“It’s easier to control your bubble when you know who’s coming in and coming out,” Bowles said. “I will be home working, my husband and all three of my daughters will be home working.”
Royster has the power to shut down classrooms, hallways or whole schools should spot outbreaks occur.
Only a low community spread rating from DHEC permits Royster to resume classes five days a week at schools.
Parent Liana Beachman decided to pull her 6-year-old son out of Plain Elementary completely when she missed the deadline to get him into the virtual academy. Beachman and her 2-year-old daughter both have autoimmune disorders.
“Community spread might go down, but after students are in school two or five days a week, it will go back up,” Beachman said.