MYRTLE BEACH — As teachers and parents continue to reach out to elected leaders about their concerns with Horry County Schools continuing with brick-and-mortar instruction despite the county experiencing a significant rise in COVID-19 cases, the distance between the two ideologies continues to rise — and quickly.
On Thursday, the Post and Courier Myrtle Beach acquired an email sent by Sherrie Todd, the HCS Board of Education District 2 representative, to an HCS teacher, who had messaged Todd about her concern over the district ignoring the “high spread” designation given to the county by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The district’s return-to-school plans indicated that “high spread” meant students and teachers would immediately move to distance learning — something Todd said “we have a right as a district to change at any given time.”
Todd’s e-mail seemed to point the finger back at teachers, accusing them of bringing COVID-19 into the schools — something she told the Post and Courier Myrtle Beach wasn’t her intent.
“Teachers, like the rest of us, are going on with our lives. None of us know where we contract the coronavirus,” Todd said, indicating that she recently lost a member of her extended family to the virus.
“I wasn’t pointing the finger at any teachers, I think the teachers are doing an amazing job. They are working harder than they’ve ever worked.”
Many teachers did take exception to Todd’s email, spreading like wildfire on private social media channels, with the email reading:
“We as a school district cannot keep our teachers safe if they choose not to keep the safety guidelines while away from school they practice while at school. They are attending parties, traveling out of town, and not practicing social distancing or wearing mask.
“People think they are invisible (sic) when they are away from school. But as I said earlier we cannot protect teachers when they are away from school. I appreciate you following the rules at school. But when teachers are doing all the extra curricular activities how can we say they contracted the virus at school. In fact, I believe teachers are taking the virus to school.
“If you will read our entire plan you will read that we have a right as a district to change at any given time.
“My advice to everyone and I speak as a retired HCS teacher. If I suffered from the anxiety and fear I have had some to share with me I would retire. I would look for another job. We have said all along we are playing with a moving target. We admit we do not have the answers. We are doing the best we can.
Todd seemingly doubled-down in her conversation with the Post and Courier Myrtle Beach, pointing to teachers’ actions outside of work.
“Teachers are complaining, yet they’re on Facebook, they’re traveling, they’re going to parties, they’re attending events. And I don’t see the difference in them doing that and I doing that, and going to school.
“I’m not being ugly, not being unkind, just trying to be fair to all.”
According to HCS, it does not actively monitor the social media accounts of employees, despite Todd’s statement.
Todd also indicated that what she intended to get across in the email is that no one can control the coronavirus, and therefore everyone takes a risk any time they leave their homes.
When questioned about that line of thinking, as virtual school keeps kids indoors, Todd paused for a few seconds and then pointed to her “obligation to students.”
“I understand there are so many teachers who have health issues, teachers have parents living with them. I understand all that, I do,” Todd said. “But I also understand that we all have a job to do, and our obligation is to the students of Horry County. That’s my main priority.
“Because we also have an obligation to the students that want to come, feel like they need to be in school two days a week. Parents feel like it is in the best interest of their child to have that face-to-face, 1-on-1.”
One elementary school teacher, who asked to remain anonymous due to threats of losing their job, said that Todd and the district are misguided in their belief that the current setup is aiding students.
“When you live in fear of getting sick; when you jump because someone sneezed; when you focus more on hygiene than education, you don’t learn in that type of environment,” the teacher said. “Administrators hide behind the idea that it is good for socializing — but if teachers are doing it correctly, there is little to no socialization going on, as everyone is supposed to stick to themselves.
“Of course, that’s if the teacher enforces the rules. The district doesn’t really care if that happens, they make decisions from their homes.”
Reality is in the eye of the beholder
The elementary school teacher admits she has had to take safety into her own hands — literally and figuratively.
They spend hours each day wiping the nose of students showing symptoms of sickness — 2 of 7 students showed up on Tuesday due to illness — and teaching children how to use scissors or write their name, something that doesn’t happen at 6 feet away.
Todd attempted to relate to the teacher’s current situation, talking about how she used to clean her own classroom throughout her teaching career — all before the coronavirus pandemic, something she admits she does not have to deal with day-to-day.
HCS recognized that teachers and staff are stepping in on cleanliness.
“Teachers and staff are assisting with wiping down and cleaning their classrooms,” the district said.
Todd has also not seen the daily conundrum of watching fellow faculty skirt the rules as the elementary school teacher has — seeing teachers without masks for the bulk of the day, while also not social distancing around both children and co-workers.
Not wearing a mask does violate the rules set forth by HCS, according to the district.
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It has created serious frustration, where potential conflict is a real threat.
“When you have other teachers who have their own beliefs and don’t follow the rules, it makes you feel like you are doing something wrong,” the teacher said. “But, in reality, I am doing the job that the district asked me to do. Even while risking my own health, as well as my family’s health.”
The teacher has observed their school’s principal look the other way when staff and faculty do as they wish, prompting an anonymous letter to the principal that broke down all of the violations at the school.
The letter was nearly read verbatim at a staff meeting, with no action taken.
It doesn’t surprise the teacher, pointing to the top-down attitude adopted by the district, not reaching out to teachers for feedback on curriculum, nor safety protocols.
The teacher even claims that the current COVID-19 dashboard hosted on HCS’ website is highly inaccurate, saying numbers at schools far underreported, with the coronavirus actually being labeled as “flu” when classifying absences.
The district did not confirm the labeling detail when questioned, although three independent teachers within the district did corroborate the designation.
HCS did say that the data within the dashboard is confirmed by both DHEC and HCS Health Services, although did not address whether those cases are all self-reported.
Todd says that she feels poorly for teachers that felt uncomfortable in the classroom, encouraging them to seek out human resources to discuss a change in instruction model, indicating that there might be HCS Virtual teachers that would like to return to the brick-and-mortar classroom.
According to the district office, this isn’t a possibility until the second semester.
“Teachers had the opportunity to apply to be a virtual teacher. A one-year commitment is expected for virtual teachers; however, based on student enrollment, teacher assignments may change at the beginning of the second semester,” the district said.
Todd said that sometimes small groups simply want to create problems for the masses — calling them “they” consistently — saying that it has weighed so much on her personally that she has stopped replying to emails and phone calls from concerned constituents.
She says other board members have done the same, feeling they can’t “win” by responding.
“What they do is they write all board members, and when we respond, they take little sentences and then they put together this is what she said, this is what he said,” Todd explained. “So most of us have quit answering emails, because we are tired of being chastised for something that is not truly in our heart, the way we feel about teachers.”
A teacher tests positive; students don’t quarantine
Cindy Johnson, a parent of a student at Socastee Elementary School, said that her child’s teacher recently tested positive for COVID-19, but no one in the class was put into quarantine.
According to a note sent to parents from Principal Krista Finklea, that means that no one in the classroom was within 6 feet of the teacher for a period of 15 minutes or more.
HCS confirmed this to be the protocol, meaning that the teacher was deemed to not be within 6 feet for a sustained 15 minutes, despite the in-person school day extending nearly 7 hours twice per week.
“So how do they really know who was around who and I’m pretty sure a teacher would be around all of her students, it blew my mind,” Johnson said, indicating that the classroom door for her child was closed for a good portion of the day.
In addition to Finklea’s note, Johnson received an automated call to let her know that someone in the class had tested positive, although did not identify who — with deductive research by Johnson leading to her discovering it was the teacher.
According to HCS’ COVID-19 dashboard, Socastee Elementary has four active staff cases, with 11 more staff members in quarantine.
Johnson points to these numbers and the seemingly relaxed nature of contract tracing as cause for concern in the change of protocols that were approved prior to the school year.
“If we are going to change where we get our numbers from, it should need to be voted on and approved in the same way the original plan was,” Johnson said.
“Until that is done it should go by what was approved and if they did vote to change it or it remains this way without a vote, then families need to be given the option to change their enrollment method as well.”
Todd did indicate that a new plan has not been approved as of yet, the current situation an enactment of their ability to change the rules for the moment based on the data in front of them.
“It’s our job to educate children. If you look at our plan. We said all along, ‘We do not have the answers.’ Horry County Schools can’t come up with magic answers. We don’t know anymore than anyone else knows, we are all doing the best we can,” Todd said.
“We are in the business of educating children to the best of our ability. And we owe each child an education. We have to work toward that.”
In the meantime, Johnson indicated that keeping her children in school has had a distinct emotional impact.
“They are happy to be able to go to school for at least 2 days, but they were planning on going virtual with so many of their classmates sick and they are aware in the community of the spread,” Johnson said.
“They don’t want to get it and give it to someone who cannot fight it off.”