Hundreds of students are crammed into auditoriums for lessons taught by a single teacher. Educators lose planning time that is needed to prepare lessons. Custodians and cafeteria workers are thrown into classrooms and asked to watch the children.

South Carolina schools face a logistical nightmare as the highly transmissible variant of omicron infects record numbers of students and staff.

During the first week of January, 31,522 SC students had to be quarantined, according to data from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. This is an increase of around 372% from the number of people quarantined the week of December 13 before most students went on winter vacation.

The growing number of cases and quarantines in the state has caused operational problems for district officials. Because omicron is a highly transmissible variant, many school districts are seeing more breakthrough cases among staff members than they experienced during the delta variant’s push in the early part of the year. school year 2021-22.

This creates a dire situation for many districts as more and more staff stay home every day to self-isolate and quarantine. Staffing is such an issue that it has contributed to 12 school districts going virtual as of 10 a.m. on Jan. 14.

“We’re all drinking from a million fire hoses and you just can’t catch up,” said Dawn MacAdams, health services coordinator at Richland School District Two in Columbia.

While it’s difficult to keep schools open, districts are trying to keep students learning in person for as long as possible. Data suggests that students do better when they learn in person. From 2018-19 to 2020-21, the percentage of students who met or exceeded expectations on standardized test scores fell in all subjects except English I end-of-course exams, according to the SC Department of Education’s annual report card. .

The fact that students are learning remotely also puts societal pressure on parents, some of whom have to take time off work to look after their children.

“When we go virtual, it’s an unbelievable hardship for our families, where if they’re not working, they’re not getting paid,” said Greg Little, superintendent of Lexington School District 1.

Even though district leaders want students in school, many remain reluctant to mandate masks, one of the most effective ways to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

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The mask fracture

Only three of the 10 largest school districts in the state — Charleston County, Richland One School District and Richland Two — require masks. In those districts, school leaders felt it was important to keep students, staff and visitors masked while cases are so high.

On Jan. 4, SC’s Department of Health and Environmental Control adopted new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shorten the quarantine period for positive cases from 10 to five days. Students can return to class on the sixth day after testing positive if their symptoms have improved and they have not had a fever in the past 24 hours, but they must wear a mask until the 10th day after have tested positive.

Districts are required to keep track of students who test positive and the number of days since their return.

In Richland One, Richland Two and Charleston, education officials say it’s a simple task because everyone is required to wear the masks.

“I don’t know how you enforce it when you don’t have a mask mandate,” MacAdams said.

Other large districts have avoided implementing mask requirements, saying they want to continue giving parents choice in what their child wears. Districts now have the freedom to implement mask requirements if they choose, but it wasn’t always that way at the start of this school year.

A state budget rule backed by Governor Henry McMaster banned the use of state funds to implement mask requirements. On September 27, this budget rule was overturned by a federal judge, who ruled it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since then, few districts have started requiring masks even though there were no legal barriers.

“I think we’re really at the top, we’re not looking at adding anything,” Little said of possibly reinstating a mask requirement as cases increase.

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He added that more and more students are wearing masks despite the lack of a requirement due to new DHEC rules.

In the Kershaw County School District, cases have remained low despite the lack of a mask mandate. Since the start of the pandemic, Superintendent Shane Robbins said he has used every tool at his disposal to mitigate the spread of the virus in the district of 10,856 students.

The district earmarked federal COVID relief funds to pay for infrared temperature scanning systems at building entrances, plexiglass barriers on desks, electrostatic sprayers that disinfect surfaces, UV rays on buses and HEPA filters. to improve air quality. The district has also created isolation rooms for sick students and staff members, and is working to have social distancing whenever possible. Eighty-one percent of its staff are vaccinated.

So far, the district’s cases have not exceeded its school year peak of about 250 positive students in August.

“If you walk around our schools right now, because the spread has increased, you see more students and staff wearing masks than before Christmas,” Robbins said.

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Staff experience

In the first week of January, 2,010 staff members were placed in isolation with COVID-19 and another 1,375 were quarantined for being a close contact, according to DHEC data. In some schools, 10-15% of all staff are absent, causing major disruption throughout the day.

At a Dorchester District 2 meeting on the severity of COVID-19 on January 14, Jack Mansor, principal of River Oaks Middle School in North Charleston, said 27% of his teachers were home due to the pandemic. Later that day, the district announced it would transition Dubose and Oakbrook colleges to virtual learning from Jan. 18 to Jan. 24.

“At the end of the day, it’s not sustainable,” Mansor said. “My teachers are tired, the students are tired.”

The situation is causing a general sense of unease among teachers across the state, said Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association.

Teachers are being asked to cover lessons, forgo their planning and breaks, and teach students online and in person. This exacerbates the burnout that teachers have already been feeling for the previous two years of the pandemic.

“I’ve heard of teachers working in the cafeteria, I’ve heard of teachers cleaning up their own classrooms, I’ve heard of guards working as substitutes right now,” East said.

This ultimately creates an aggravated experience for students, where school has become more about childcare than education. Educators like East wonder if it wouldn’t be best for districts to just go online for two weeks so the virus can subside.

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But there are also problems with this plan. Patrick Kelly, teacher and director of government affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, said if a teacher is sick, they shouldn’t be expected to work, even remotely. If they are absent, either they are personally ill or they have a sick child at home.

“In both of these situations, it is inappropriate to ask the teacher to be home to teach lessons,” he said.

Kelly and East fear this latest wave could be the tipping point for many teachers who have considered leaving their profession.

The state is already in the midst of a teacher shortage crisis, with 1,063 vacancies at the start of the 2021-22 school year, according to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement’s annual report.

The dire situation teachers currently find themselves in should be a wake-up call for state lawmakers during the legislative session, Kelly said.

“We started with a deficit, which means we have no room in our staff and human resources to respond to something like this,” he said.

Jerrel Floyd contributed to this story.

As SC superintendents continue to battle COVID-19, some decide enough is enough