The Rock Hill School Board takes a vote during a meeting in Rock Hill, South Carolina, on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. Like school boards across the nation, Rock Hill's board has had to answer the simple question when do children return to school with no easy or guaranteed safe answer.(AP Photo / Jeffrey Collins)
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ROCK HILL, S.C. (AP) — Helena Miller listened to teachers, terrified to reenter classrooms, and parents, exhausted from trying to make virtual learning work at home. She heard from school officials who spent hundreds of hours on thousands of details — buses, classrooms, football, arts, special education. She spent countless nights, eyes wide open, her mind wrestling over the safety and education of the 17,000 children she swore to protect.

She thought of her kids, two in high school and one middle-schooler — the reasons she ran for Rock Hill's school board six years ago.

She made the hardest decision of her life: a vote to reopen schools amid the coronavirus pandemic, splitting students into two groups that would each spend two days a week in classrooms, with virtual learning the other days.

“We have an impossible decision to make. And we still have to make it," Miller said from a tiny box on Zoom at the board's July meeting.

This Board of Trustees in suburban South Carolina is like thousands of school boards nationwide, where members are tackling a simple but hefty question — do we return to school amid a pandemic? — with no right or even good answers, in the face of inconsistent testing and a near-constant increase in confirmed coronavirus cases.

Behind that question is pressure. Pressure from teachers and bus drivers and janitors, scared to return to work but in need of a paycheck. Pressure from parents and guardians, who need to return to their own jobs but fear for their children's safety. Pressure from a president who declares on Twitter “OPEN THE SCHOOLS!!!” but whose administration provides little guidance for doing so.

In South Carolina, even state leaders can’t agree. The governor contradicted his education superintendent and said schools must allow a five-days-a-week option for working parents. School boards had to untangle the mess - Rock Hill ultimately kept its staggered plan.

There's plenty more to resolve: Should classes be delayed until after Labor Day? How do kids get to school with buses at half-capacity? What about protective equipment? Should students have drama or orchestra with no public performances? What will student athletes do in a place like Rock Hill, known for sending football stars Jadeveon Clowney and Stephon Gilmore to the NFL?

School boards represent democracy at its local core: the backbone of communities, a check on superintendents, and a direct way to influence education policy. Rock Hill's strategy was very democratic. The board listened to eight committees, of parents and business or community leaders. Members spent dozens more hours in emails and chats with people in and around their city, population 75,000.

There were teachers to consider. Susan Fields told the board she has lupus and must protect herself: “I love my kids, and for 25 years I have always put my students first. This is very odd for me ... for once I am standing up as an educator."

And there were parents. Emily Bell said she wasn't sure what she would do with her elementary-school daughter: “In the morning, I’m ready for virtual school. And in the afternoon, I’m ready for my child to be back in the classroom.”

Much hinged on policy, so staffers and trustees pored through the school manual for hours. Changes were needed: Widened circumstances for virtual classes, no more open-door hours for parents lunching with kids, permitting athletes to practice or play if they weren't physically in school.

The board didn't agree on everything. Trustee Brent Faulkenberry initially didn't favor the plan for in-person class two days a week. He wanted five, to help working parents, with an online-school option.

“If families can’t work, they can’t provide for these kids," he said.

Board member Robin Owens praised his points, especially about her fear of young children left at home while parents work. The two-day-a-week plan, she said, “falls squarely in the middle, which means that it is probably not going to make anyone happy. Hopefully it will make some people satisfied.”

Faulkenberry's proposal lost 5-2. The board then unanimously agreed to the staggered schedule and delaying the first day of school to Sept. 8, the latest allowed by state law.

There was no shouting, no claims of fake science, no accusations that trustees didn't care for kids. At a time when such arguments erupt everywhere from talks shows to Facebook, from the White House to the corner store, this board prides itself on civil discourse.

“I am so thankful to serve on a board where professionalism is put on the forefront,” said Miller, who has set out since becoming board chairman in 2018 to create a deliberative body that disagrees amiably. Trustees' ties are forged through regular meetings, trips for training, and school visits together.

This month, Miller is gently directing the group back to in-person meetings. If trustees are sending children into schools, she said, the board should physically meet, too — with seats spaced 6 feet (2 meters) apart and everyone in masks.

The trustees agree their work during the pandemic — for which they're paid their usual salary of $600 monthly, unlike the 62% of school board members nationwide who get no compensation, according to 2018 National School Boards Association figures — has been the hardest of their tenure.

“We want what’s best for our children," trustee Windy Cole said. "I've been in all the meetings, I've listened to everything I can, and I trust our district is doing the best possible under these horrible circumstances. We have to just keep praying,”

And they've been able to find moments of joy. During a long Zoom meeting largely focused on the district’s $175 million budget, a school employee announced a summer program where every student from pre-K to grade eight would get a box of books delivered to their home.

The trustees cheered. “This makes my heart so happy,” Cole said.

After all the talk of taxes, missed celebrations for employees, and logistics of school amid the outbreak, Miller reminded her colleagues: It’s not just “doom and gloom.”

And she offered them all a virtual hug.