School in SC’s first COVID-19 hotspot proud of progress after more than 100 days of in-person learning

KERSHAW COUNTY, S.C. (GRAY) - Inside Lugoff Elementary in Kershaw County, it’s easy to forget the hotly contested debates surrounding school safety taking place 30 minutes away in Columbia or about 500 miles away in Washington, DC.

Kershaw County was the first COVID-19 hotspot in South Carolina. But now, more than 100 days into offering full-time, face-to-face learning, about 68 percent of students are back in the classroom.

“It’s different from a typical school year when you have one group of students that you spend all day, face-to-face with,” said 5th-grade teacher Melody Johnson. “There are four teachers moving through three face-to-face classes and one virtual class every day,” she said.

Johnsons stressed it takes a lot of teamwork and planning to keep the school running.

For example, the school principal was in a class last week teaching fractions because the school was unable to find a substitute or a replacement, Johnson recalled.

Among other COVID-19 precautions, at Lugoff Elementary most of the students are wearing masks except for time set aside for “mask breaks.” The school also takes student’s temperature at the door, uses plexiglass dividers between desks, social distances students when possible, and has special precautions like an “isolation room” in place in case a student is showing COVID-19 symptoms.

“I really love to be at school and the students give me the energy I need, but that’s not without challenges,” Johnson said. “I have elderly parents I don’t get to spend time with because of the exposure at school, but we are doing the best we can to try to make learning fun and students succeed and not just catch up from anything they might have missed in the spring. We want to push kids ahead,” she said.

Depending on the teacher and grade each class operates slightly differently at Lugoff this year. Some educators teach their virtual and in-person students at the same time and others will separate the two classes.

“We make it work and that’s what we do,” one teacher told State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman as Spearman toured the school.

For the students who’ve returned to in-person learning, they say it’s been a better experience than learning at home.

One of Johnson’s 5th-grade students, Reid Hinson, said he contracted COVID-19 earlier in the year and found it difficult to keep up while in quarantine.

“Learning at home, it stinks...I don’t like it,” Reid said. “It’s really hard to keep up with assignments, and sometimes you have to ask teacher things and email them and stuff like that, so usually you can just talk to them face to face,” he said.

Reid said he hears a little about the discussion around teacher vaccinations and school safety, but he is just happy to get to see his friends, talk to his teachers, and be at school.

Johnson said as she juggles all her students and the different technologies, she tries to focus on the task at hand. When asked what she thinks about what phase of the vaccine rollout teachers should be in, Johnson agreed with her colleagues that educators should be prioritized.

“I know there are people who are elderly, we have elderly teachers, they are older, they are not as safe, and we have people with preexisting conditions. And we have these people making sacrifices for all the children in South Carolina, which benefits every person in South Carolina,” Johnson said.

However, full-time face-to-face isn’t a fix-all for every student.

“Some of them are still playing catch up and they have come forward just not as much as we would like them,” said one teacher when discussing the benefits of tutoring and summer classes with Spearman.

And it’s not just the teachers, administrators, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers are also working harder to keep their students safe.

Before lunchtime, the kitchen at Lugoff is in the middle of what the kitchen manager said is a military operation to feed students in the building and at home.

“They are all my kids,” said kitchen manager Kati Horton. “Some parents are out of work and they’ve said, ‘thank you, thank you for feeding us because we’d have a hard time if you didn’t,’ I’m on a first-name basis with parents I’ve never met,” Horton added.

Lugoff’s staff stressed that they are not trying to be an example for other schools or to be considered a case study for how to run a school during the pandemic, they just want people to see the results of their labor of love.

“I want everyone in South Carolina to understand how hard teachers work. That teachers are not babysitters, that teachers aren’t just here so parents can go to work, that’s an issue and we understand, and we are happy that students being in school allows parents to do that, but teachers are sacrificing teachers are working hard and want to be appreciated for what they do,” Johnson said.

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