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Fort Mill middle school transitioning to remote learning due to COVID-19

Forest Creek Middle School will switch to virtual learning for all students beginning Thursday, Aug. 26. They will return for in-person learning Sept. 9.

FORT MILL, S.C. — Forest Creek Middle School in Fort Mill, South Carolina, will transition to remote learning for all face-to-face students due to a rise in COVID-19 cases within the school. 

All students will remain in virtual learning for 14 days, as recommended by the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). Students will return to in-person learning on Thursday, Sept. 9. All afterschool activities, sports, and clubs are canceled during that 14-day period. 

Fort Mill Schools District announced the rise in cases shows the presence of community spread within the school. Because contact tracing showed spread was happening within the classroom and not from an outside source, it is a trigger to close the entire school.

The school has not announced how many COVID-19 cases are currently within the school. According to the Fort Mill School District COVID-19 dashboard, 29 students are positive at Forest Creek with another 103 in quarantine. Two staff members are positive, according to that data. 

"We're closing off our schools to visitors and to volunteers. We're going to be discontinuing eating in the cafeteria for elementary level, they're going back to meals in the classroom. We're going to be even further limiting the interaction between classes, especially at the elementary level. we've shut down field trips outside of our district at this point," Joe Burke, a representative for the school district, said. "So we're hoping all of these mitigation strategies are going to keep this from happening."

School districts in South Carolina are not able to mandate masks because of a line in the state budget. Fort Mill School officials said their hands are tied, they rely on state funding and don't receive as much federal funding because they are not a high-poverty area.

They could not afford to violate the funding law.

"We will have to maintain under that funding we are strongly encouraging the use of masks by staff and students, we hope everyone will use one and if anything changes in the future and it's a topic that can be revisited, we'll look and see where we are with the numbers and see if it makes sense to have one implemented at that time if we're given the option," Burke said.

Some other South Carolina school districts are doing mandatory masks despite the funding cuts and some parents argue it's worth reconsidering the district's state funding for the sake of student safety.

"Could we afford it on our local and federal budget and maybe what adjustments might need to be made," parent Sarah Steinbacher said.

Others worry without a mask mandate in place their children will continue to be at risk.

“We’re at the mercy of those who aren’t masking," parent Elisa Lewis said.

DHEC held a media update on the same day Fort Mill Schools made an announcement. WCNC Charlotte asked about this situation. State Public Health Director Dr. Brannon Traxler said she highly recommends all students and staff wear masks and those who are eligible get vaccinated.

DHEC has also asked the state legislature to remove the proviso in the state budget that does not allow schools to mandate masks.

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"We understand this transition may cause a hardship for some families and we can assure this decision was made after a thorough review of our contact tracing data and with the safety of our students, staff, and community in mind," the district said in a statement. 

Contact Chloe Leshner at cleshner@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.  Contact Briana Harper at bharper@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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