Education

Why were SC schools closed for so long before Florence hit?

Seeking shelter from Hurricane Florence

Residents of Horry County SC are streaming into the shelter at Loris High School Thursday Sept. 13, 2018, as Hurricane Florence bears down on the Pee Dee Region of South Carolina
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Residents of Horry County SC are streaming into the shelter at Loris High School Thursday Sept. 13, 2018, as Hurricane Florence bears down on the Pee Dee Region of South Carolina

Many South Carolina schoolchildren and teachers had an unexpected several days of school-free sunny weather last week.

Four days before South Carolina began to feel the effects of Hurricane Florence, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster ordered schools across half the state to shut down in preparation.

Despite the storm’s relatively mild effects beyond the Pee Dee region, state education officials and a number of Midlands residents said they stand by the governor’s early call on closing schools. Others, however, said the widespread closure was a premature and inconvenient — if not costly — decision.

“In our opinion, he made the right call,” said Ryan Brown, spokesman for the state Department of Education. “You never know with a massive, Category 4 hurricane. ... If (McMaster) had not done that, we could have been in very bad shape. It’s better to be prepared.”

On the afternoon of Sept. 10, when McMaster ordered the school closure order for 26 counties, Florence was predicted to strike the S.C. coast as a potentially devastating Category 4 hurricane. Thursday night, though, the storm was downgraded to a Category 1 as it reached the Carolinas coast.

“At its peak, we had more than 440,000 people evacuate from the coast,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said Monday. “As the governor said when he ordered those school closings, one of the primary focuses for doing that was to keep (people) off of the road as we had those coastal areas evacuate into the area. ... It was a matter of being good neighbors to those people who were evacuating.”

Schools in 26 counties, as far west as Lexington and Aiken, were ordered to close beginning Tuesday. Local school districts had no say. After the storm’s path shifted last Tuesday, McMaster lifted that order for eight districts.

The closures were ordered, in part, to free up resources for emergency response, including schools to possibly be used as shelters and buses to possibly be used to transport evacuees or emergency personnel.

More than 100 school buses were put on standby in Orangeburg to be used for storm-related transportation if needed, but none were, state officials said.

Several dozen schools statewide were used as emergency shelters for storm evacuees. There is no requirement that state shelters be in schools, though the vast majority of them are.

More than 5,000 people reportedly stayed at emergency shelters across the state last week as the storm made a slow westward march through South Carolina. Many people remained in shelters early this week as the Pee Dee region faced dangerous flooding from swollen rivers.

Two schools in the Columbia area, Ridge View and Lower Richland high schools, were set up as shelters last week. Ridge View hosted a few dozen people in its gym. Lower Richland was open for only a few hours Friday and Saturday, and only one person showed up, Richland 1 spokeswoman Karen York said.

A Charleston resident couldn't return home from a trip because Hurricane Florence evacuations were underway. Now he is staying in a hurricane shelter at Ridge View High School in northeast Richland.

Meanwhile, more than 150 other schools across Richland and Lexington counties’ seven school districts were closed Tuesday through the weekend. A number of schools opened to provide free meals to children those days.

Some Midlands residents said four days without school was worth the inconvenience to assure statewide preparedness and safety.

“Yes, it’s inconvenient and sometimes frustrating,” said Colleen Crosby, a Columbia parent. But “whatever it takes to collectively help our fellow South Carolinians should be our goal.”

Some parents asked by The State said their students had been sent home with school assignments, while others wished theirs had been.

For some families, the long break was more than an inconvenience.

“As a single working parent, it definitely ruined a week of productivity I have to make up for,” said Andrew Sabalowsky, a Columbia resident. “Shutting Columbia (schools) down Tuesday was beyond ridiculous, and Wednesday could still have been a half day if not full day of school.”

Some parents told The State they had to take off work to care for their children; some could not afford to miss work. Some faced extra expenses for unexpected child care.

“It’s an inconvenience for some of us. For others living on the margin of poverty, it’s more than an inconvenience,” said Jon Artz, a father of two and the vice president of programs for Homeless No More, a nonprofit that provides emergency, transitional and affordable housing to about 55 families in the Midlands. “We had a mom, she came to us (saying), ‘I understand schools are closed, but I have my first day at work ... and I don’t have child care.’ That is a reality for many families.”

Homeless No More helps its families with child care during extended school closures, but not all low- and moderate-income families have the same options, Artz said.

“I could see the hardships that some of our families were going through to get to work,” Artz said. “If you’re in a salaried job with benefits, when it gets closed ... good for you, but that’s not everybody’s situation.”

Most S.C. schools reopened Monday after the governor lifted his closure order for most counties Saturday afternoon.

But schools in 15 districts remained closed Monday and eight on Tuesday, as flooding persisted in the northeast region of the state.

School districts build in at least three make-up days into their calendars. But no Midlands districts have officially announced when last week’s missed days will be made up.

Lexington 1 had planned to have an early dismissal day on Wednesday, but that will be a full school day now, the district said in a news release.

Lexington 1 and other districts have indicated they will wait to see if state lawmakers and McMaster will move to forgive any inclement weather days and not require they be made up. State leaders have done so in the past. Local school boards also can waive up to three makeup days.

Symmes said the governor will wait for a proposal from the General Assembly regarding make-up days and consider it as he has in the past.

Staff writer Tom Barton contributed reporting.

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