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“They like having their own personal space, some called it their ‘personal office,’” said Aynor Elementary School Principal Reggie Gasque. The school has had plexiglass in each classroom since Nov. 23. The state Department of Education is paying $5 million in CARES Act funds to install plexiglass in all Horry County schools as a step to return to five-day face-to-face classes. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

Next week will mark the first time elementary school students can attend classes full time since March 13.

Lauren Guess’s two children cannot wait.

“They have wanted to go back to school for a long time," Guess said. "They miss their friends, their socialization, their teachers. All of it."

Horry County Schools completed the plexiglass installations in the elementary schools in January, and the district says the barriers will allow children to be three feet apart safely instead of the usual six. They are working to complete the middle and high schools so that all levels can get back to five-day instruction.

Guess’s third grader and fifth grader previously attended the South Carolina Virtual Charter School, and they will be returning to River Oaks Elementary on Monday. Guess said she has been preparing them for what the classroom will look like with plexiglass.

“We had showed them pictures and videos – I have several teacher friends who have posted their classrooms,” Guess said.

Not all area parents are happy about the plexiglass situation.

Local parent Justin Yarbrough aims to remove the plexiglass entirely through his recent petition, pointing out that the state Department of Health and Environmental Control does not require schools to have plexiglass.

“The Center for Infectious Diseases stated that children 12 years of age and under are at almost no risk of severe symptoms from COVID-19,” the petition reads.

Yarbrough spoke at a recent school board meeting, saying that he consulted "every government agency" he could and no one could tell him there was any benefit to the plexiglass.

"Parents are not happy about the plexiglass," Yarbrough said. "[The kids] aren't back in school; they are sitting in cages."

More than 1,350 parents have signed Yarbrough’s petition so far. The petition can be found here.

Guess said she tries to stay positive about the plexiglass for her kids.

“We talked about how mommy goes to work and there’s a cubicle — instead of telling them it’s a cage," she said. "That just creates a lot of unnecessary anxiety for kids."

She also brings home the point of how important it is for her kids to follow the rules in school about masking and social distancing.

“They have to wear a mask – I’ve always told my kids, nobody wants to do this right now, but if you can protect somebody who is at risk or is sick then it is worth it,” Guess said. “You can’t always get what you want. Sometimes things are difficult and you do things you don’t want to do … for the betterment of others.”

She said the plexiglass is not permanent.

“My daughter mentioned it’s a little hard to see, but the teacher moves around easily so she could see and it wasn’t a big deal. [The teacher is] more than willing to accommodate — it’s a means to an end,” Guess said. “They are trying to protect everybody … if that’s what it takes to get them back to school.”

Comments circulated on social media this week that HCS was hiring outside parents and teenagers to help move the installation along faster, but the district denies those claims.

“This is not accurate. We have not taken any actions to solicit parents to assist with the installation. We have contracted with three vendors to provide the installation of plexiglass and followed the procurement process,” district spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier said.

The school district said they contracted with A1 Signs, Tyson Signs and Herald Office to continue the installation.

"Our vendors are contractually obligated to hire skilled workers, complete a background check on each employee, and enforce HCS policy compliance while on our campuses," Bourcier said. "While our vendors may be looking for additional staffing for such a large job, they must meet our requirements or forfeit the contract."

Bourcier also said that classroom installation is conducted after school hours and on weekends. 

"Some unpacking and pre-assembly work may occur during the school day in an unused general area within the school building to include the cafeteria/dining rooms," Bourcier said. 

According to HCS, the plexiglass specifications and parameters were set by a state agency (SCDHEC) and endorsed by another state agency (South Carolina Department of Education).

"HCS followed these guidelines and procedures in regards to plexiglass in schools. HCS will also continue to follow the guidelines/regulations set forth by South Carolina statutes," Bourcier said. 

Another petition was recently started asking HCS to stop the installation until certain items can be resolved.

The petition, started by Colleen Mills, said that plexiglass is ineffective in stopping COVID from spreading, creates a fire hazard and prevents students from seeing well in class.

Signed by almost 500 so far, the petition asks that only professionals should be doing the installation and that Centers for Disease Control guidelines should be followed regarding social distancing and masks.

It also asks that outside contractors have a background check and that teenagers and college students should not be hired for the process, which also should not take place during school hours, the petition reads.

Teachers should not be responsible for cleaning the plexiglass, Mills said in the petition, and the S.C. Department of Education and State Fire Marshal should be consulted regarding plexiglass placement, among other stipulations.

The petition includes more requests, such as hazard pay for educators, a safe way for teachers to express their concerns without fear of retribution, and the hiring of more substitute teachers. View the full petition here.

Back in December, Aynor Elementary was the first school to receive plexiglass, and teacher Ashley Poston told My Horry News the vast majority of students think of the shields as “their own personal office.”

Seeing her and hearing her hasn’t proven to be a problem for her students either, Poston said, and if there was, she said she can easily share her screen with the child’s personal iPad so what she has on the board can be right in front of them.

Guess said the children need to be back in school. 

“The implications of not being in school are worse than anything caused by being behind plexiglass,” Guess said. “Mental health … academically … it is worth it to do whatever it takes to get them back into school.[Children] seem to be taking it all in stride and the parents are the ones with the issues,” Guess said.

Guess praised educators for their efforts to accommodate the plexiglass and consider the students' needs.

“[My children] haven’t had any complaints – they are just happy to be in school,” she said. “The teachers are doing everything they can to make it easier, they deserve a lot of praise for the work they’re doing. I think it’s important that people don’t pass on all the fear to their kids. Everybody’s just been through enough."

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