Richland 1 expects to reopen its schools this week, Superintendent Craig Witherspoon announced Monday.
The district, which covers nearly 500 square miles from northern Richland County to the Sumter County line, has been closed since the historic flooding that swept through South Carolina last week. It remains the only Columbia-area school district that hasn't reopened its doors.
Richland 1’s two major concerns, Witherspoon said, are making sure its more than 675 bus routes to school are safe and ensuring schools have adequate water pressure, which is necessary to keep restrooms working.
Those concerns – especially road closures – are prevalent in Lower Richland, where water still stands in some areas and many road and bridge closures have made getting around a hassle for residents.
Cora Joyner, 67, from Gadsden, said road and bridge closures in the area have doubled the length of her drive to work at Fort Jackson. She said she now must drive nearly 70 miles every day, avoiding road and bridge closures on Bluff Road and throughout Hopkins along the way.
Maylee Gilmore, 66, who has three grandchildren in area schools, said the past few days have been “rough.” She said she’s had to take much longer routes to get anywhere and that some of her neighbors and friends who live on back roads are still stuck there, unable to navigate away.
“Trying to get in and out has been terrible,” Gilmore said.
Monica Carter, principal at Gadsden Elementary School, said her school is under a boil-water advisory but has plenty of supplies – including bottled water and hand sanitizer. The real issue, Carter said, is whether students can get to school safely.
Some of Gadsden Elementary’s children live on dirt roads washed out by flooding, Carter said. Others live in nearby Eastover and, after two bridges between the two communities were closed because of flooding, they no longer have easy access to the school, Carter said.
Carter and others were at Gadsden Elementary on Monday, passing out supplies, including food, workbooks for students and other goods, to families who stopped by. “The need is there because a lot of people still can’t get to the city to get their supplies,” Carter said.
Witherspoon said Monday that Richland 1’s problems aren’t confined to just one part of the expansive district, mentioning that some of the harder-hit schools are Olympia Learning Center on Bluff Road, Satchelford and Bradley elementary schools in or near the town of Forest Acres and Carver-Lyon Elementary in the Waverly community.
District officials worked through the weekend with state and county officials to assess roads and redraw bus routes, Witherspoon said, adding that he wants bus drivers to know their new routes when the district re-opens.
“We wouldn't want them on the road and trying to figure that out while they're driving,” Witherspoon said. “Our staff has been going out and actually driving those routes. We've got drivers on the road right now practicing those detours and those routes so that they feel comfortable.”
Schools will use bottled water and portable bathrooms until the city declares the water is safe to drink and sewer lines can handle the volume, Witherspoon said. “We can work through a boil-water advisory,” Witherspoon said.
Meanwhile, the reopening of Richland 2 in the county’s northeast area went off smoothly on Monday, spokeswoman Libby Roof said.
Aside from a two-hour delay and a few unusual changes, students at Polo Road Elementary School filed into the school Monday morning for what seemed like a normal day.
Water fountains were blocked off – the school remains under a boil-water advisory – and the morning announcements show included tips on how to wash hands with hand sanitizer. Every classroom was equipped with a 32-bottle case of water. But aside from that, Principal Marshalynn Franklin said, it was business as usual.
“It kind of feels like coming back after spring break or Thanksgiving break,” said Franklin, who greeted students as they were dropped off at the entrance. “We’re excited – teachers and staff. Our parents are equally excited, trying to get back into our regular routine.”
Students who arrived before 10 a.m. could play instructional games and activities set up in a multipurpose room to “get the brain going” after a one-week break, Franklin said. Once school started, first-grade teacher Whitney Chick gathered her students in the front of her classroom for a discussion about the flooding and what lessons its aftermath offered about voulnteerism and compassion.
“We’ll have to look out for each and help each other for a long time, but we can show compassion like we do here at school,” Chick said, “and we can take care of each other and help each other just like we always do.”
Franklin said no buses were late to Polo Road Elementary on Monday morning. That was mostly consistent with the rest of Richland 2, Roof said.
Roof said only 10 of the district’s 114 buses did not have route changes because of road or bridge closures, but that only a few buses were late because of the reroutes on Monday.
Roof said Richland 2 would continue to have a two-hour delay through at least the rest of the week.
“I think the biggest thing for us is being able to let our buses to run in daylight hours,” Roof said. “With so many routes impacted, I feel like that’s the best thing for this week.”
Staff writer Clif LeBlanc contributed to this story.
Lexington 1 in Lexington and Lexington 2 in Cayce-West Columbia will return to their normal start times Tuesday. Both had reopened Monday with a two-hour delay. Jim Hinton, Lexington 2’s director of student services and institutional support, said the district’s bus routes fared well. Aside from traffic congestion on Knox Abbott Drive, Hinton said, “it went right to plan.”