MARION, S.C. – Marion County School District Superintendent Kandace Bethea and school officials are looking at the big picture in preparations for students to return to school in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence three weeks into the school year.

“We have done assessments,” she said. “Looking at the capacity of our staffing, because many of our staff members live in neighboring areas or communities that may have been flooded. So we had to assess whether or not we had enough staff to be in place for students and also on the transportation end, are our roads suitable to put our buses on.”

Bethea said the district wasn’t at that point in the beginning of the week, but was more confident about the Mullins and Marion attendance areas now. Those schools reopened Thursday with a two-hour delay.

The delayed start was to allow bus drivers to have more visibility, she said.

However, the southern part of the county is a different story as the area deals with flooding that has forced Brittons Neck Elementary School and Creek Bridge High School to remain closed for the rest of the week.

“The unique part of the southern part of the county that’s a little bit different from what we dealt with in a similar situation in Nichols is that we didn’t have any schools in Nichols,” Bethea said. “We actually have a school that is centralized right in Brittons Neck in the center of where a lot of the flooding took place. Right now, what we’re having to do is assessing and seeing what previsions are we going to have to use for those particular schools.”

That includes making sure they have the resources in place for families and students along with coming up with a plan.

“We don’t know when we’re going to be able to get back into the doors of that building, but making sure that we are looking at what are our options to get those students into some building in Marion County School District,” she said.

Bethea said there was some damage to buildings that had leaks.

“We did have, for instance, at the district office some flooding in our basement areas,” she said. “Just your normal storm-type damage.”

The district already is looking at makeup days. According to state regulations, the local school board can excuse up to three days and can also a request a waiver from the state board of education to excuse days.

“By state guidelines each district has to identify three inclement weather days in the calendar, so, of course, we already know we’re going to use those,” Bethea said. “And we foresee also making up additional days other than those three to inclement weather. I’m projecting five to seven days.”

Marion County schools were used as shelters in response to Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and more than 170 people returned once again last week.

“I think that the reality of it, especially in a rural community, is that your school is the hub, and we have to be a resource for the community,” Bethea said. “We have the capacity, space and the ability. We’re always willing to open our doors to the community as a shelter.”

Bethea said Marion County officials and the American Red Cross are very considerate in using school facilities and transitioning shelters as quickly as they can.

“We just feel that we are doing our part being good community partners,” she said.

Bethea said responding for displaced families after two hurricanes in two years has been a challenge.

“Hurricane Matthew prepared us for a lot,” she said. “When you’re dealing with displaced families, you’re not just dealing with the students. We’re having to deal with the family situation, looking at the circumstances on a case-by-case basis. Situations differ from household to household, but we’re making sure that we have the resources. Our counselors have already started making contact with the displaced families that we are aware of.”

The district has a survey on its website asking for any displaced family to inform the district to provide support.

“We’ve already secured uniforms for our displaced students in need,” she said. “These are things that we are doing behind the scene as a district. We don’t want our families worried about the small things when they have enough on their plate dealing with life issues.”

Bethea and her staff along with students have spent the past several days doing their part with community service projects donating items to shelters and preparing meals for first responders among other things.

“We have been as a Marion County community overwhelmed with the generosity of others throughout this state and out of the state,” she said. “I guess it’s just a unique factor that we’re dealing with this twice within a two-year timeframe. I think that Marion County is a resilient community, but we appreciate all of the support.”

Bethea said it’s going to be a long process, but she can picture a positive outcome.

“It takes all of us working together, and I do think our teachers do a phenomenal job,” she said. “Now we truly don’t have time to waste. Every moment is of essence at this point, but I think that we have a very good staff that will get the job done.”

Born in Atlantic City; raised in Mullins. Graduated from SC State University, home of the mighty Bulldogs. Editor of the Marion Star & Mullins Enterprise. Loves spending free time with his daughter. Huge sports fan.

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