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Unmasked: Part 2 – The education system 

The Tryon Daily Bulletin is featuring a seven-part series on the impact of Covid-19 and government restrictions in the Foothills. This series of articles will focus greatly on the opinions of small business owners, local families, churches, health care facilities, schools, etc., and whether they believe government restrictions had a harsher impact than the pandemic itself due to unintended consequences. Its intent is to allow readers to determine if the measures taken to reduce the spread of Covid-19 has taken a greater toll on our community than the virus itself.

Aaron Greene, superintendent of Polk County schools, says of the Covid-19 school restrictions, “There was no way school was ever going to be the same during Covid-19 as it was before.”

Schools had very little control over the government restrictions in the school system, and Greene stresses that he or anyone else in the school system did not make any political decisions.   

He says in regard to the way students have been learning during the pandemic, “When you limit face-to-face interaction with teachers and peers, it takes a huge toll on learners, especially teenagers who need to be learning through deeper discussion and engagement.”

Greene says that students not being in school five days a week is a big issue when it comes to learning. The requirements like sanitation and face coverings are manageable. “Not being able to attend school full time has negative effects, for sure,” he adds.

He also says that the teachers at Polk County schools are doing everything they can to make sure students are learning, though they are aware of the unfortunate challenges that come along with teaching students online and in person at the same time.

“The pandemic has certainly impacted [teachers’] ability to effectively engage students in learning,” Greene says, also stating that students have also been affected socially and emotionally.

The social and emotional considerations were one of the first things the school system worried about in regard to the students, and Greene believes that students not seeing friends and learning in person has made a negative impact on them.

“Young people are resilient,” he says, “and we have a great community who has worked to support them, but Covid-19 has taken a toll on our students.”

In Polk County schools, Greene strives to keep the health of the students, staff and community, which are at the forefront of all the decision-making. Greene, the Board of Education and staff at Polk County Schools have worked hard to keep schools open and remain open as long as they are allowed. They continue to hope that the leaders and decision makers of Covid-19 restrictions did the best they could.

“We do not know what toll the virus would have taken if we did not employ mitigation,” Greene says. “It’s easy to look back and say there was not much spread last spring, and maybe we could have stayed in school longer.”  

Greene claims that almost everything anyone debates about Covid-19 depends on context and perspective. “We must always keep in mind that staying open when there is risk can be dangerous, just as staying closed when we could be open is detrimental to students and families.”  

He goes on to say, “We certainly assess our actions and reflect on our decisions to improve, but the schools and I had no control over these decisions. Therefore, I choose to focus on how we move forward and make up for the lost learning that occurred.”

The Covid-19 virus is known for being fatal to the elderly and rarely young grade school students. Which raised the question nationally as to whether schools needed to be shut down at all. Greene says that a good number of students go home to elderly grandparents, churches with elderly people, restaurants and grocery stores.  

“Polk County has a large retirement population and a good number of residents who are in high-risk categories. There are immune-compromised children and adults that are not elderly but still need to be protected,” he says, stating that the data we have now about Covid-19 effecting young people, the Polk County school system feels more comfortable with easing restrictions.

According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control) website, underlying illnesses were more common among school-aged children who suffered from severe outcomes related to Covid-19 in August of 2020. Between July and September of 2020, 23% of school-aged children were hospitalized, 38% were admitted into an intensive care unit and 33% died, each having at least one underlying condition.

Based on students’ statements who participated in a survey using a cross-sectional web panel survey, the CDC website claims that only about 65% of students wear masks all the time in classrooms, hallways or stairwells, 42% of students wore masks consistently in school buses, 40% in restrooms and 28% in extracurricular activities.  

The South Carolina DHEC website states that as of March 17 of this year, 11,194 students in South Carolina schools tested positive for the virus and 3,897 South Carolina school employees tested positive for the virus. The cumulative Covid-19 cases, overall, associated with schools in South Carolina is 15,091.

Cumulative case numbers for local SC schools according to CDC: 

  • Landrum High School: 23 students, 6 employees.
  • Landrum Middle School: 6 students, 5 employees.
  • O.P. Earle Elementary: 5 students, 0 employees.

No deaths associated with Covid-19 were reported among these schools, and due to the low number of cases, some are left wondering whether the shutdown was necessary.

O.P. Earle Elementary school teacher Summer Parsons claims that the hardest part for her third-grade class was not being able to socialize with other classmates. She went on to say that the shutdown shocked many of her young students.  

Parsons said that Covid-19 certainly limited her instruction as a teacher, and she also believes that education needs to be in-person as safely as possible.  

“Students are still learning and are able to get more instruction now that we are back face-to-face five days a week,” she says. “It is vital for students to be in school and get instruction from their teachers as long as it is safe for us all.” 

Parsons says she has not seen a decrease in grades and believes the children were aware of the pandemic, knowing that the protocols were set to ensure their safety.   

“I have seen some gaps in content that the students missed due to the shutdown,” Parsons says. “My district and school have worked together to implement a pacing guide for our teachers to use that would help bridge the gaps in learning that may have been missed due to the shutdown.”

The bottom line for Parsons is that children need to be in school to get a quality education and District One, she says, provided students with their best abilities to keep students learning.  

The overall conclusion of Superintendent of Polk County Schools Aaron Greene and third-grade teacher at O.P. Earle Elementary school Summer Parsons believe that in-person schooling is most important in educating students, but the safety of students should not be risked due to unpredictable circumstances. 

The following 5 articles in the Covid-19 Unmasked series will continue to share the subjective opinions of individuals in the community. In the April 14 edition of the Bulletin, we will feature the various perspectives and statistics of Covid-19 from event planners and those managing tourist destinations and attractions.  

By Macy Cochran