Death of SC teacher raises tensions over reopening schools or remaining virtual

Updated: Sep. 10, 2020 at 6:51 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - After the death of a 28-year old Richland Two teacher from coronavirus, some school board members are announcing their support for learning to remain virtual until disease activity slows.

Governor Henry McMaster acknowledged Windsor Elementary School third-grade teacher Demi Bannister’s death during a news conference on Thursday, but he stood by his belief that all South Carolina schools should offer a five days a week in-person option.

“No death a teacher or otherwise. It’s always a tragedy,” explained McMaster. “I didn’t know the young lady. From what I read, she sounded like a beautiful person, and it’s sad. We’re sorry for the family, but we’ve had a lot of people die in the state because of this virus, and that’s the reason we’re here is to keep that number as low as possible, and zero is the acceptable number.”

Schools that started completely virtual are required to meet with state education leaders every two weeks to discuss moving to some form of face-to-face schooling. Richland Two started the school year completely virtual on August 31, but the county remains in high disease spread according to DHEC. That’s why Richland Two School Board Chair James Shadd and Vice Chair Dr. Teresa Holmes believe learning should remain virtual.

“While we are in the red zone, we do not need to be in-person. We need to continue what we’re doing,” said Dr. Holmes.

The Department of Education is encouraging districts that are completely virtual to move to some form of in-person learning, and districts that are in hybrid models are being encouraged to offer even more face-to-face options. The agency is also now looking at zip code data in large counties and multi-district counties to evaluate disease activity. Some Richland Two leaders said that’s not as effective as looking at overall spread in the county because they said some students attend schools outside of their zip code.

“29229, which dominates our district, is in this high positivity rate and I believe those numbers still are there,” said Shadd. “While the State Department wants to dissect it and see where we are in terms of zip codes, we still are one district that includes several zip codes.”

Both Richland Two board members believe Ms. Bannister’s death is a tragic reminder that teachers are putting themselves on the front lines.

“How would you like it to be your family member, as in the case with this 28 -year-old teacher, that did not survive?” asked Dr. Holmes. “I know people are wanting schools to be open. I know they’re saying, ‘Oh, it’s mostly survivable,’ but what if it was your loved one or one of your family members or your child?”

Dr. Hughes acknowledged that the district may need to look at offering in-person options for special needs children, but she said overall, face-to-face learning is not safe right now.

Richland Two Superintendent Dr. Baron Davis said Ms. Bannister’s death re-affirms the seriousness of the virus, and he said he was already in the mindset of following data and numbers. He said this reaffirms the importance of remaining safe.

SC for Ed will be sending out a survey to teachers Thursday night to teachers to get a feel for how they plan to respond if they’re asked to return to face to face learning.

Richland Two is expected to meet with state education leaders early next week.

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