COVID-19 means virtual school booms in S.C.'s largest district


COLUMBIA - About a third of the students in South Carolina's largest school district don't plan to attend school in person next school year, taking advantage of a robust online program offered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 23,000 of the 77,000 students in the Greenville County School District picked its virtual program, which requires a yearlong commitment to staying outside a school building, officials said Tuesday.

Many districts in the state have experimented with virtual schools before, but the COVID-19 pandemic has them suddenly blossoming as an education alternative, especially for parents worried about sending their children into a school building full of people.

And while the nearly two-month-long spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations appears to have ended in South Carolina, the spread of the virus may remain for weeks or months at a high level that will drain hospitals, health officials said.

After nearly two months, South Carolina has finally fallen out of the top five in the U.S. for the 14-day average of new COVID-19 cases adjusted by population. But that rapid spread of the virus over the summer means the state's death rate is now rising fast.

Only Arizona, Texas, California and Florida are seeing more than the rolling average of COVID-19 deaths in South Carolina.

July 13 was the first day with more than 30 COVID-19 deaths in the state since the pandemic began in March. Every day since but one where full data is available has had at least 30 people die, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Hospitals are being squeezed at both ends with more patients admitted and doctors, nurses and other workers infected or exposed to the virus in the community and unable to work for two weeks.

Outside the Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg, special tents are going up for what the hospital calls an "alternative care site."

The tents will house 12 beds for recovering patients who don't need monitoring or other specialized treatment and should be ready to go in two or three weeks, officials said.

"We saw an uptick, and we wanted to be ahead of it," said Dr. John Samies, the hospital's chief of medical staff.

The hospital started the week with 154 of its 162 beds filled. Fifty-four of those were COVID-19 patients. They also had 30 employees either infected or in quarantine, CEO Charles Williams said.

Health officials warn spikes could start again with Labor Day coming and large parties if college football starts back or for other sports.

"We'll know the peak after we've been there," Williams said.

Some experts also worry the pause in the rapid spread of the virus may end next month as some students return to school.

That's why most districts around the state are joining Greenville County schools in creating those virtual academies. Students will be required to attend online for a full day of instruction any day the regular schools in the district meet.

Most virtual academies also require students to stay in them through the entire year to ensure enough teachers are hired, although some said they may consider letting a limited number of students back into regular classrooms if space is available halfway through the year.

If more students choose the virtual classes, that frees up room in traditional classrooms with pandemic-mandated social distancing. Greenville County schools, like many others in the state, are for now splitting grades into smaller groups and not having students in class all five days of the school week.

State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman's office Monday approved the first batch of six of the reopening plans for the more than 80 districts in South Carolina.

Spearman is requiring districts include an option of some face-to-face classroom time each week to parents while the spread of the virus is still high - although not the five days a week Gov. Henry McMaster requested.

The superintendent also is demanding districts include plans on how to go back to students in class five days a week if COVID-19's spread slows.