COVID-19, year 2: As school year begins in Sumter School District, Principal Wells settles in at Rafting Creek Elementary


REMBERT - As debate continues to swirl at the state level regarding mask mandates for children given the surge in COVID-19, Tuesday was the first day of school for students across Sumter School District.

Here at Rafting Creek Elementary School, first-year principal Brandon Wells called it "unprecedented times" for education, but his school is ready with virus mitigation efforts in place, and he refers to Rafting Creek as a "diamond in the rough."

Each classroom in the small elementary school is outfitted with personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes and shields, and masks are available for all students and strongly encouraged. Deep cleaning occurs regularly at the school, and all teachers and staff are mindful of spacing students, he added, as the district begins the year with traditional, face-to-face instruction.

Wells said his biggest hope is that the kids can remain in school for the entire year, but no one knows that for sure, given fluctuating COVID-19 levels.

Another major hope for Wells, he said, is that his teachers can engage the school's students in effective learning.

"I know several students lost a lot over the pandemic, so I hope our teachers can be energized and reach our students," Wells said. "No matter what the circumstances are, to reach the students and grow them."

In the big picture, Wells wants to change outsiders' perception of Rafting Creek, and - he said - because the school has some of the best teachers in the district and a strong community base, he thinks that can be done.

Because the faculty and staff size is small - he's the only administrator in the building - Wells said he knows that will take a collective effort, but he is energized for the task.

In his 13th year in the district, Wells said, he thinks his years in the classroom as a middle school band director and later as an assistant principal helped prepare him for the leadership post.

"I have never forgotten what it takes to be a teacher," Wells said, "so I understand all the difficulties of discipline and teaching every single day. I really strive to serve teachers to ensure they have everything they need to be successful in the classroom. I really want to make whatever school that I am at a great place for teachers to work at and also for students to attend."

In a Tuesday news conference in Columbia, state Superintendent Molly Spearman said she disagreed with Gov. Henry McMaster, saying that school districts should be able to mandate masks.