Less than 24 hours after South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster lifted the evacuation order for Hilton Head Island, Beaufort County School District students were back in school.
At least they were supposed to be.
Attendance numbers for Wednesday — the first post-Irma day back in the classroom after 2.5 days off — paint a different picture.
Almost 22 percent of students — 4,834 of the district’s 22,217 students — were absent Wednesday, with some of the largest numbers coming from the Hilton Head cluster of schools, district spokesman Jim Foster said.
The half-day of school on Friday was even worse. More than a third of students — 7,905 of 22,217 —were absent.
In an average day, the district records 1,490 students absent, according to an attendance analysis of the week of Aug. 28 through Sept. 1.
The district’s decision to call students and staff back to schools Wednesday prompted a wave of backlash on their Facebook page from parents and teachers still struggling to return home in miles-long traffic.
“Yet another stellar Beaufort County decision,” a parent commented.
Another wrote, “Is BCSD truly ready to function at a decent rate on Wednesday? I think not.”
Foster said the comments didn’t show the full scope of support for the district’s decision and on Wednesday pointed to the 333 emojis the district received on a Facebook post Monday evening. He said the district had 262 likes, 12 love-its, 41 angrys, 13 wows, 2 ha-has and three sads on the post.
“Students (being) back at school returns the whole community to a sense of normalcy,” he added. “There are state regulations to consider, makeup days, parents who have jobs.”
Three schools — Robert Smalls International Academy, St. Helena Elementary and Lady’s Island Middle School — were without power Tuesday morning, but electricity was restored by the evening. Hilton Head Island Elementary, the district school most vulnerable to flooding, had water in some hallways and classrooms, but the issue was resolved before students returned Wednesday. Daufuskie Island Elementary, the only district school not to reopen Wednesday, will reopen Thursday, Foster said.
Hilton Head Plantation encouraged residents Tuesday to delay returning until Wednesday or Thursday. More than 5,400 Beaufort County customers were still without power as of 9 a.m. Wednesday — all evidence upset parents cited in the comments section to illustrate the prematurity of the return date.
The district clarified its decision in a second Facebook post Monday night: “There is no way to make a scheduling decision like this one and make everyone happy. ... We’re confident that the majority of students — many of whom didn’t evacuate — will be able to attend.”
Foster said the district did not know a number of evacuees.
The post continued, “Our best assessment is that this is the best decision for most families ... parents’ decisions on whether to make the trip home on Wednesday are theirs to make.”
It was an easy decision for Charity Pratt, mother of three students at northern Beaufort County district schools. She and her family evacuated to Indiana, where her extended family lives, for financial reasons. Facing a 14-hour drive, she decided to split the return home into two days, Tuesday and Wednesday, instead of cramming the commute into one day.
“For people trying to get back in a hurry, it was irresponsible of the district,” Pratt said Wednesday while driving through the mountains of North Carolina. “It’s a lot to ask of the community to return in one day.”
The decision also differed from the district’s next-door neighbors.
Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools System closed for the entire week.
Jasper County School District returned Wednesday but delayed start times by two hours, a decision made based on the power outages that remained and to allow administrators more time to prepare, district spokeswoman La’Shanda Grant said.
The Technical College of the Lowcountry and the University of South Carolina Beaufort, both of which offer programming to district students, delayed starting classes until Sept. 18.
“I just think the decision was relatively insensitive,” said Lawrence Melton Jr., a parent to two Okatie Elementary students. “They’re coming home to a mess or a disaster. It took me a solid day to get my house back to order.”
While Seth Greer and his fourth-grader at Coosa Elementary did not evacuate and his daughter attended school both Friday and Wednesday, he said returning Thursday would have been a better district-wide decision based on conversations he had with other parents.
“Give people some time to assess their homes,” he said, adding that the district rushed back to school to avoid having to make up more days.
For the first time since the 2013-14 school year, the Beaufort County Board of Education designated those days to be on Saturdays.
Students are allowed 10 unexcused absences for the school year. Parents should contact individual principals to request an absence be excused for weather-related reasons, Foster said.
Staff absences were also above average. About 10 percent of school-based employees — 231 on Friday and 259 on Wednesday — were absent, Foster said. A “normal” day has about six percent of the 2,500 school-based staff absent.
Nicole Starling, a teacher at Bluffton High School, was one of those missing from the classroom Wednesday.
Starling lives near Savannah where Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal issued a mandatory evacuation order. She evacuated with her 9-month-old to North Carolina on Friday by taking a personal day. Because of heavy southbound traffic from other evacuees returning home Tuesday, Starling didn’t return home until Wednesday at 2 a.m. and took Wednesday off as well, but she does not blame the district for the decision they made.
“It was my choice to take a day off for my sanity and well-being,” she said.