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Midlands parents clamor for a full week of learning in the classroom

IRMO — Just one week into the school year, Paula Smith is already exhausted.

The mother of three was among roughly 100 parents outside Irmo High School on Monday urging Lexington-Richland 5 school board members to allow their children to fully return to the classroom. Trustees had to walk by the mask-clad parents and their signs to go to their meeting. 

“I want them to know it’s important for kids to get back to normal,” said Smith, who’s trying to balance the schedules of her second-, third- and sixth-grader along with her own full-time job.

Parents in the school district that spans two Midlands counties are protesting the weekly mix of in-person and online learning that started Sept. 8. But officials aren’t slated to even re-consider the hybrid scheduling for several weeks. 

On Monday night, board members said exactly when Lexington-Richland 5 schools will allow students back full-time would be left to the discretion of Superintendent Christina Melton, who said she planned to give a recommendation on Sept. 28. Over the summer, officials set a preliminary date of Oct. 8 for a five-day return to classes.

They have repeatedly said they intend to re-evaluate the situation then, after a full month in hybrid mode. 

“Our kids deserve and and should be back in school face-to-face,” rally organizer Jennifer Valek said. 

Rally goers chanted “face-to-face!” and held signs that read “Hear Us Now Or Hear Us In November.”  

Of South Carolina’s 81 public school districts, just 20% started their academic year offering all students the option of a full week of in-person learning. Kershaw County was the lone Midlands district to do so, though Lexington Three (Batesburg-Leesville) did give that option to all elementary students. 

Three other Lexington County districts also opened with hybrid options that put students in the classroom two days weekly and the rest online. 

The state’s 14 school districts that opened online only include Richland One and Two, which cover Columbia’s downtown and northeast suburbs.

Both of those districts started classes virtually Aug. 31. Officials say they will gradually bring students back depending on coronavirus rates locally, and Richland County has some of the state’s highest.

Frustrated parents are asking officials there to transition to at least a hybrid option, if not a full return to the classroom. 

“This is not my plan. This is everybody that has contributed to where we are, so I alone cannot answer that question right now,” Richland One Superintendent Craig Witherspoon said of setting a date for eventual classroom learning. 

A survey over the summer found that 20% of parents wanted the year to begin with some type of in-person option.

“I don’t think we can ignore those parents,” Richland One school board member Beatrice King said last week.  

In July, Gov. Henry McMaster called on all districts to offer a full week in the classroom from the outset. But he was promptly ignored. 

Last week, he said he’d mandate a five-day option if he could, but state law doesn’t give him that authority. So he called on legislators to set aside $50 million of federal coronavirus aid to reimburse districts that do offer five days of face-to-face. 

“Many working parents simply cannot stay home with the children every day,” he said. “If a parent wants to send their children back to school or if they want to keep their child at home, they should have that choice. They shouldn’t have to choose between their child or their job.”

Some point to last week’s death of a 28-year-old Richland Two elementary school teacher as a reason not to reopen schools. Demetria “Demi” Bannister died Sept. 7 after testing positive for COVID-19. Bannister had been teaching virtually from home and was last in her classroom Aug. 28 for a teacher workday. 

But parents who want their child in the classroom point to the rarity of children getting seriously ill from the disease that preys on the elderly and those with underlying health problems. And research suggests children are less likely to transmit the virus. No one in South Carolina ages 5 to 19 has died of COVID-19, according to state health data. 

“Enough is enough. Open our schools,” Richland Two parent Melissa Bramante said.

A July survey found 55% of that district’s parents were either comfortable or very comfortable returning to schools.

For Jessica Fleetwood, it’s not just the educational component that her kids are missing. Her kindergarten daughter was brought to tears when she wasn’t able to share news with classmates about losing a tooth.

“The formative years of school are what shapes a child’s attitudes, enthusiasm and beliefs about education for the rest of their educational career,” the mother of three and early childhood educator wrote in written comments to the Richland Two board.

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