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‘I wish we were doing more’: Lancaster County Schools superintendent talks COVID after three deaths in the district

Published: Sep. 13, 2021 at 7:22 PM EDT
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LANCASTER COUNTY, S.C. (WBTV) -A second teacher at a Lancaster County middle school has died from COVID-19, district officials announced Friday.

“We are saddened to learn of the passing of a second South Middle School staff member,” a statement from the Lancaster County School District said. “Special education teacher Eleanor Mends passed away from COVID complications. Ms. Mends had many years of experience teaching and three years with Lancaster County School District.”

District leaders said they continue to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, and that it is their priority to keep students and staff safe.

Three COVID-19 deaths in one month of school. First, an Andrew Jackson High student. Then, two teachers from the same school, both within less than a week of each other.

”It’s just absolutely horrible and some of the teachers and staff there are really taking it hard,” said Jonathan Phipps, Lancaster Schools Superintendent.

Related: Lancaster County teacher dies from COVID-19 complications, district says

Phipps is trying to navigate through not only the emotions that the district feels from the losses but also how to prevent more.

”It just makes me question if we should be doing more and I just wish we were doing more,” he said.

WBTV asked Phipps if there was something specific happening at South Middle to create an increased COVID environment. Recently, the school had the most positive cases among teachers and staff.

”I don’t think there was any one thing,” explained Phipps. “If there was one thing we would certainly fix it or at least make people aware so we could figure out what we can do for next steps.”

The one thing Phipps would like to try are masks, but the state legislators, backed by Governor Henry McMaster, made masks mandates illegal in public schools.

”Politicians making decisions for political reasons instead of looking at the science instead of trying to keep folks safe...shame on them,” saidPhipps.

The superintendent says he is not for one party or the other. He does not think any of this should be a political conversation at all. Instead, the real focus for him beyond keeping school doors open and kids safe is not having to mourn the loss of another Lancaster Schools student, teacher or staff member because of COVID-19.

”We’ve had three deaths in Lancaster County and we’ve been in school a month. Less than a month. We’ve got to do something different,” he says.

Right now, Phipps says there is not many changes they can make to all the legal COVID protocols they are already doing. The district is trying to put together a virtual academy, which they hope can help. The superintendent says there is a lot of interest in it. However, the problem now is staffing issues.

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