The winter storm forecast for Greenville this weekend could very well serve as a "buffer" for the school district as schools grapple with teacher and student absences largely caused by COVID-19.
The Greenville County school district has been inundated with positive COVID-19 cases after students and staff returned to class from winter break on Jan. 3. On Thursday, 13.7%, or 10,507, of district students were absent from school. That number included all absences regardless of reason, but includes COVID isolations and quarantines. By comparison, on the same day in 2020 before the pandemic, 4.6% (3,543) of students were absent.
The potential winter storm that could hit Greenville as early as Saturday evening could be a blessing in disguise for the school district if "snow" days are needed following the holiday weekend.
A long holiday weekend, extended by a day or two because of weather would give students in quarantine a chance to recover and could help limit the further spread of COVID, influenza and other illnesses.
The district has not yet said if and when it will make a decision about eLearning days next week, but is closely monitoring the situation to see what the weather impacts are this weekend.
"It has been taxing, and we welcome any break from that, which this winter storm might offer," said Tim Waller, Greenville County schools' director of media relations. "We continue to have a lot of COVID student and staff questionnaires to process, and we will continue to have people working through the weekend to get those reports processed, snow storm or not."
On Monday alone, the School District received more than 4,000 COVID-19 questionnaires that are required to be filled out by those who are COVID-positive, in isolation, and/or in quarantine per DHEC guidelines.
Greenville County Schools: continue to monitor COVID-19 cases, assess eLearning possibility
Winter storm could mean eLearning days for Greenville schools
The idea of a "snow day" has changed since the beginning of the pandemic.
When the pandemic started, every student was offered a Chromebook if they didn't already have one, Waller said. When eLearning was put into practice, the school district realized quickly they no longer needed to take "snow days" in the event of inclement weather and have the ability to switch to eLearning days if necessary, he said.
"Since we are looking at a double whammy as well as staffing shortages due largely to COVID, I still don't see any scenario where we would see a day off due to this storm," Waller added. "While we are experiencing a serious staffing shortage, a lot of that is due to being in quarantine, but teachers have indicated to us they are still able to work while quarantining. We have plenty of people to help make an eLearning day happen due to inclement weather."
Prior to the pandemic, the school district had three days per year designated as snow days they could use for such reason. But, when they developed eLearning as a result of the pandemic, they took those snow days and integrated them in the regular school calendar year. So right now, in most circumstances, if inclement weather occurs during the calendar year, it will not affect the operation of classes.
"We will continue to monitor the weather throughout the weekend to see if Tuesday and/or Wednesday will be switched to eLearning days," said Waller.
Student absences have doubled since start of pandemic
The Greenville County Schools' Board of Trustees met Tuesday and discussed staff absences, and while the board did not take action on any revisions to COVID protocols, they wanted to provide updated information that is impacting the school district, according to Board Member Derek Lewis.
He said, as with all other industries, the number of staff absences and vacancies is reaching critical numbers. On Wednesday, 1,300 classroom teachers and aides were absent, or about 21%, out of 6,000 instructional positions. Many of these teachers and aides were isolating due to positive COVID tests, or working from home because their children are isolating or quarantining at home.
Student absences are nearly double what they were at the beginning of the pandemic, although student absences can range from a number of different reasons other than isolating or quarantine due to COVID.
On Monday, 10.3% of students were absent. On the same day (the second Monday in January) in 2021, student absences were at 9.6% and in 2020, 5.3%.
On Tuesday, student absences were at 11.3% compared to 9.6% the same day in 2021, and 4.8% in 2020.
On Wednesday, student absences were 10.6%, compared to 8.8% in 2021 and 4.3% in 2020.
The highest percentage of student absences this week was Thursday at 13.7% compared to this date last year, which was 8.8% and 4.6% in 2020.
The Greenville News has also asked for student absence data for 2019 on Friday morning but has not yet received the data.
On Monday, the school district had 75 bus drivers out, in addition to 65 unfilled bus driver vacancies.
"These absences are hitting our food services program and transportation department particularly hard," Lewis added.
The board approved one-time $1,000 bonuses for all salaried and full-time employees in recognition of the work staff is being asked to undertake during unprecedented circumstances.
"I think the $1,000 bonus will be well received but it is not nearly enough to solve the (staffing) problems," said Lewis. "Our shortage of bus drivers is a problem that may not be solved in the short-term -- just as we begin to increase pay and supports for drivers, the construction industry is going to see a huge ramp-up in road and construction projects, and most of those with CDLs would far rather drive a truck than drive a bus."
As for the teacher shortage, Lewis said he thinks the "Teacher Cadet" program and
the partnership with Clemson University to accelerate their college coursework is
a "promising way" for the school district to recruit and shape future teachers.
As of Wednesday morning, there were 1,769 employees absent on Tuesday out of approximately 11,000. An initial report earlier this week had around 1,700 employees absent.
Between Jan. 1 and 9, which is the most recent data available, there have been nearly 1,500 student COVID cases and more than 550 staff COVID cases in the School District. Through Jan. 11, there were an additional 108 staff cases. In January 2021, the school district saw a total of 1,400 cases and nearly 550 staff cases, according to the school district's COVID-19 Dashboard.
Student isolations by the end-of-day Tuesday were 249 compared to 604 on Sept. 8, which was the peak count since the pandemic began and student quarantines went up from 3,521 to 4,021 in just one day this week. Staff isolations on Tuesday were 137, Waller said.
A day before, there were 108 staff members isolating and 257 quarantining, passing part of the record high set on Jan. 7, 2021 when there were 218 staff members isolated and 221 staff members in quarantine.
Education and Family Issues Reporter Krys Merryman can be reached at 864.420.7111 or email@example.com. Continue the conversation or join a new one on our Education and Family Issues in Greenville Facebook page or on Twitter @krys_merryman.
This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Could winter storm help prevent COVID cases in Greenville schools?