“We want our voices to be heard”: Staff shortage leads to three Midlands high schools closing Tuesday

Teachers at Irmo, Dutch Fork, and Chapin High Schools opted to use personal days to call for a return to hybrid education

IRMO, S.C. (WOLO) — Three Midlands high schools had to close Tuesday due to a severe staffing shortage.

Several teachers at Irmo, Chapin, and Dutch Fork High Schools opted not to come in Tuesday after the district’s school board opted not to put high schoolers back on a hybrid learning model.

During an emergency meeting Monday, Lexington Richland 5 Superintendent Dr. Christina Melton called on her school board to have 7th through 12th graders return to a hybrid model of learning until at least Christmas.

At the meeting, district leaders learned that 22 of 23 schools in the district have at least one positive case of COVID-19.

After three hours, the board ultimately took no action on Dr. Melton’s motion, keeping students in school four days a week.

“For some reason, it felt a little more like a slap in the face for them not to make a decision at all, so a lot of teachers felt it was time to make our voices heard in a different way,” said Reina Floyd, a math teacher at Irmo High School. “That if enough of us are not available in the building, the building will shut down, and perhaps people in a position of power and decision-making will listen to us.”

As a result of the staff shortages, students at Irmo, Chapin, and Dutch Fork High Schools had to learn virtually Tuesday. In a letter to parents, the district said students will learn virtually Wednesday like they usually do, but then they would re-evaluate the situation Thursday based on staffing levels.

The district later released a statement Tuesday afternoon, saying:

“After receiving a high volume of staff leave requests beyond COVID-19-related leave, the district made the decision to close Chapin High School, Dutch Fork High School and Irmo High School on Tuesday. Despite several contingency plans, including but not limited to utilizing substitutes and staff, we could not provide the staffing needed to ensure normal school operations on that date. Our focus is always on our students and their safety. It was out of an abundance of caution that we made the decision to close schools.”

Jennifer Valek, a parent of students in Lexington Richland 5 schools, says she supports teachers making their voices heard, but thinks they could have done so differently.

“I don’t know if that’s the best example; I feel like our teachers should be showing our children that when you don’t get your way you walk out,” Valek said. “Some people would disagree that it’s a lesson learned, I would say that’s not the best example set for our kids.”

Sarah Gams, the 2021 South Carolina Teacher of the Year who has taught at Lexington Richland 5 schools in the past, says she hopes this stand of unity will help district leaders see that safety is their top priority.

“Sometimes moving forwards looks like moving backwards, but everything we’re doing as an educational field right now is in an effort to get back to that five days face-to-face, which is where we all desperately, believe me, desperately want to be there,” Gams said. “But we know we can’t get there unless we’re safe.”

The board will be meeting Wednesday to continue discussing reopening plans. That meeting will begin at 4 p.m. at the Lexington Richland 5 district offices. 

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