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High school seniors breathe a sigh of relief that they made it to graduation. But school administrators fear the fall semester


“This graduating class is very special and very remarkable,” he said, his words echoing through the school’s sweltering football stadium, in the southeastern suburbs of Columbia, South Carolina.

Few could argue with the sentiment — all high school graduates this year have been through two school years disrupted by the pandemic. Two years of sporadically closed classrooms, canceled sports and educational upheaval. And that’s just the school day.

These have also been years of fear and pain and loss for many students. Gilmore is one of them. His mother contracted Covid-19 and lost her job during the pandemic. She’s got a new one now, but the strains of the recent past have brought other pressures to the family. Gilmore’s life has been buffeted by car accidents, deaths and mental health crises in the family.

Reflecting on pandemic life at the dining room table, where he had attended virtual school with many of his eight siblings when classrooms were closed, Gilmore told CNN he’d been rocked by the unexpected.

“[It] wasn’t like back in a few years ago when we had school,” he said. “It’s just new for everybody.”

Joel Gilmore, right, stands next to his mother and other members of his family, all touched by the pandemic.

Gilmore made it through to graduation, wearing a gown weighted down with multiple tassels and medals marking academic and other in-school achievements. His advice to his siblings, who are headed back to another uncertain school year, was simple.

“Push through it,” he said. “And make sure you stay focused on your end goal.”

Many of Gilmore’s classmates, like students across the county, have fought similar odds. The on-stage speeches at the graduation celebrated student resilience and an expectation that these students are especially ready for whatever comes next.

The outdoor ceremony was hot but joyful.

Graduation day was part celebration, part huge sigh of relief.

“We were not certain we would make it to this point,” Lower Richland Principal Ericka Hursey told CNN. Surging pandemic numbers last fall and winter shut classrooms down, and had administrators worried they might lose another full semester of in-person learning to Covid-19.

“We are happy to be here and are elated that the kids had the opportunity to have a traditional graduation,” Hursey said.

Getting ‘back to normal’ is raising concerns

Richland One school district, serving around 24,000 students in the Columbia area, was able to return to in-person schooling in the spring, but classrooms were emptier than before to allow for pandemic social distancing requirements and because of the students who continued virtual learning.

Now, school leaders in South Carolina are being pushed to get everything back to normal for the next academic year, which starts in just a few weeks.

And that’s where the worry comes in.

Superintendent Craig Witherspoon wants more people vaccinated before the new school year.

“We’ve got to get more folks vaccinated and get those numbers up so we can be safe,” said Craig Witherspoon, superintendent of the Richland One school district. “And if we want to get back to a sense of normalcy, this how we do it.”

The morning after Gilmore’s speech and that quick sigh of relief, Richland One district leaders were back to holding their breath. At W.A. Perry Middle School, cars lined up for a drive-thru vaccination site run, in part, by the school district. Richland County, and South Carolina overall, are not doing very well when it comes to vaccinations. As of the morning after graduation, roughly 40% of people here were fully vaccinated, according to state numbers. The drive-thru is the district’s attempt to boost those numbers.
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It’s also one of the few tools they have to keep the virus in check next year. Republican elected leaders in South Carolina have been pushing hard for a full economic reopening statewide, and pushing back hard against any ongoing efforts to mitigate the virus’ spread.

Gov. Henry McMaster has already ordered all schools open for five days per week and in-person instruction in the fall, though parents will be able to opt out. McMaster has banned vaccine requirements and given caregivers the option to opt students out of mask requirements at school.

The pandemic is not history for Richland One school district. The principal at W.A. Perry, site of the drive-thru vaccination, lost her father to Covid. Other schools have lost teachers. Students have lost family members. Everyone knows what a new surge could bring.

A drive-thru clinic is one way the school district is supporting the vaccination drive.

Even as one Covid-altered school year ends, another one could be coming. And that means there’s not much time for relief.

“That’s the role of a superintendent, especially in Covid,” said Witherspoon. “We’re planning for the fall, already taking everything that we can into account and make the best decisions possible.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the family member of the W.A. Perry principal lost to Covid-19. It was her father.


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