Health authorities confirmed 27 new COVID-19 cases in Aiken County and another 1,546 cases across the rest of South Carolina on Tuesday.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control also confirmed 52 coronavirus-related deaths Tuesday. The deaths oc curred between July 4 and July 27. Three of the victims were young adults, eight were middle-aged, and the remaining 41 victims were elderly.
None of the victims were from Aiken County. DHEC is investigating four deaths in Aiken County for coronavirus, and 45 additional cases of illness for the possibility of infection.
Aiken Regional Medical Centers reported Tuesday that it has confirmed 441 cases of novel corona virus in Aiken County. Of these 441 individuals, 28 are currently receiving care in the hospital and 14 have died.
Additional individuals have been tested for COVID-19 but test results have not been received yet, according to a news release from the hospital.
DHEC has resumed reporting hospital occupancy data after experiencing several days of difficulty with the new federal tracking system. As of July 28, about 77% of ICU beds in South Carolina hospitals are occupied.
There are 1,575 patients currently hospitalized for COVID-19 issues; 256 of those patients are on ventilators.
According to a news release from DHEC, South Carolina is one of
several states that is working with federal partners in an effort to "improve" TeleTracking, a private technology firm that is now responsible for collecting coronavirus data from hospitals.
The previous system, which was operated by the CDC, broke down hospital bed information by the type of care patients were receiving. This allowed hospitals to report the occupancy in hospital departments that provide direct care to those with COVID-19 or its affiliated symptoms.
However, under Teletracking, all available beds are reported as "one total number," according to DHEC – including pediatric beds, psychiatric beds, and other areas that aren't available to treat patients with COVID-19.
As a result, states are attempting to tweak Teletracking's reporting structure to allow for more "accurate and actionable" data on hospital occupancy as it relates to coronavirus, according to DHEC.
Coronavirus cases as of July 28
Aiken County cases — 1,310
Aiken County deaths — 19
South Carolina cases — 83,720
South Carolina deaths — 1,505
One of North Augusta's most prominent civil servants from a couple generations ago is being remembered this month, in connection with a legacy of munici municipal management around South Carolina and Florida.
Carey Smith, a Greenville native who was North Augusta's first-ever city administrator, died July 5 in Pawleys Island, where he and his wife, Joan, lived in retirement. Their North Augusta years were 1974 to 1980. "He actually was the first city manager here and he was also the first city manager of Hilton Head, South Carolina," said John Potter, whose early years as North
Augusta's director of finance overlapped with Smith's time with the city.
Smith, who died at age 77, was "a great guy to work for," Potter added. "That was the city's first venture into having a professional guy lead the city – answering to the mayor and council, but basically handling the day-today affairs of the city."
Lee Wetherington, now retired from service as a director of the North Augusta Department of Public Safety, said it was "very easy" to work with Smith – a fact that helped the city's emergency responders.
Wetherington, who was a captain at the time when Smith came on board, said Smith was "always professional, and he always had the interests of the city at heart."
Among Smith's successors in North Augusta was Sam Bennett, who described him as both a mentor and friend, and also as "a very thoughtful and caring gentleman who always looked for a problem to solve and a way to make the lives of the citizens he served better."
Bennett, who now holds a similar position in Hilton Head, noted, "He could see the potential in the people and in the cities he managed, and in doing so, he strived to help both reach their potential. Anywhere he worked, he left it better than he found. I was very fortunate to have crossed paths with him and the love of his life, Joan."
Smith, who spent his childhood years in Greer, was fond of tennis, fishing, reading, beach walks and shagging, according to one of his obituaries. It also noted, "He was an active member in church as a deacon and choir member throughout his life and most recently was a member of Duncan United Methodist in Georgetown."
His work in municipal management reportedly began in Spartanburg and led to Dillon, North Augusta and Myrtle Beach between the years of 1968 and 1984. Hilton Head was the next step, followed by service in Tarpon Springs, Florida; Daytona Beach, Florida; and Rock Hill. Next were roles as the interim manager of Hardeeville and Georgetown.
Amid protests, and after hours of discussion, the Aiken County School Board has decided to proceed with its intended proposal of a hybrid model of learning for when schools reopen in the fall, a system that incorporates both distance and in-person learning for students in the public school system due to coronavirus concerns.
The atmosphere in the district's office on Brookhaven Drive was grim July 21 as board members were forced to consider, essentially, two dueling risk factors presented during the meeting's public participation period – the loss of education and essential services provided by schools or the loss of life.
Board Chair Keith Liner said the board did not intend to change their proposal, which Aiken County Schools Superintendent King Laurence said was still the recommendation supported by the district's Back to School Task Force.
"We believe ... that in most cases, we'll be able to follow social distancing and other recommendations from the CDC, DHEC and other groups," Laurence said.
The meeting was delayed for about 40 minutes due to wireless issues in the district office, which interrupted the meeting's livestreaming process during the first part of the public comment period.
Under the current proposal, the hybrid model of learning proposal would have 50% of students attend in-person classes Mondays and
Tuesdays, with the remaining 50% being in schools Wednesdays and Thursdays. Fridays will be reserved for sanitation of school facilities, lesson planning, and virtual office hours for teachers.
The district will also offer full-time remote learning for students through the district's virtual platform, Aiken Innovate, for students of all grade levels.
The first day of school in Aiken County is planned for Aug. 17. The board also took a vote on delaying the start of school until Sept. 8, put forth by board member Cameron Nuessle. The motion failed 4-3, with two board members abstaining.
Board members Patrice Rhinehart Jackson, Cameron Nuessle and Dr. John Bradley voted in approval of the motion to delay the start of school, with board members Keith Liner, Brian Silas, Jason Crane and Dwight Smith dissenting.
Board members Sandra Shealey and Barry Moulton could not vote on the measure, as they were attending the meeting remotely.
The board has until Friday to submit the plans for reopening to S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman.
A deadline extension was requested by the board after S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and some other state lawmakers called upon districts to offer five-day, in-person learning (essentially reopening schools at maximum capacity in the fall) on July 17 – two days before S.C. school districts were required to present their reopening plans to Spearman.
The Aiken County School Board previously voted to adopt a hybrid model of learning on July 16, less than a day before McMaster's remarks were made during a press conference. The July 21 meeting was held in response to McMaster's statements so the board could reevaluate their reopening plans.
It was a decision many board members said was not easy to make.
"We've been put in a very difficult position," said Jason Crane. "We're being asked to make the impossible decision, which was, in my opinion, made more difficult by the changing goal post announced on Wednesday by the governor."
Some raised concerns about health risks in schools for both teachers and students if classes were to resume in person full time.
"I don't want to take the risk of throwing everybody back into school and seeing what happens," Bradley said. "I don't want the death of a child on my conscience."
Parents, teachers speak about reopening concerns
Before the meeting, protesters gathered in the parking lot to speak out against returning to a traditional model of learning – which would involve schools operating at maximum capacity five days a week.
Teachers outside the ACPSD building broadly supported virtual instruction and hybrid models for the fall. Many of the protesters called for a hybrid model in which schools would open at 33% capacity instead of 50%, which some of them incorporated into their protest signs and chants.
Among the protesters calling for a 33% model was Scott Ayers, a history teacher at New Ellenton Middle School who drove a hearse to the protest.
Ayers hung a sign on the hearse's windshield that said, "Bus transport is not the only issue."
"We talk about buses being at 50%," Ayers said, standing next to the hearse. "If we do not do this at a safe 33% model, which was originally discussed, a lot of teachers and parents and educators are concerned this (the hearse) is what's going to be driving a student instead of a bus one day."
Juliane Taylor, an English teacher at Aiken High School, said she would prefer virtual teaching but would be happy to return to school with a 33% hybrid model.
"We were all really shocked to hear Gov. McMaster say that students should be given the option of five days a week, in person at a time when everything in science tells us that that is a bad idea," Taylor said.
Taylor said she finds online teaching much harder but believes it is the right thing to do.
Another educator who disagreed with the 50% model is Carina McGee, an English teacher at Aiken High School. McGee said she is concerned it would not be logistically possible to keep students 6 feet apart if they attend school at 50% capacity.
Besides the issue of students attending seven different class periods, McGee said students may have difficulty keeping physical distance while they go to their lockers or talk with their friends.
At a prior school board meeting, McGee mentioned writing the first draft of her will. McGee, who is in her early 20s, said it was heartbreaking to write, but she might be facing a situation where she is likely to catch the virus.
"As much as I want things to go back to normal, if it goes back to normal too quickly, we're just going to have to shut it all down again," McGee said.
McGee said she trusted that the school board would take the protestors' perspectives into consideration, and she hopes the community will proceed with caution.
For Valerie Walker, an English teacher at A. L. Corbett Middle School, safety was a primary concern. She hoped to make sure her students would be safe and that the work environment would be safe.
"I have seen the numbers of COVID going up and getting closer for school to open, and so we are very concerned," Walker said. "Even though we do want to go back to see our kids again, but we're also concerned about our own safety and especially the safety of our kids."
Bethany Ross, a second grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary, also expressed concern about safety. She said she teaches young kids who might not wear their masks and maintain social distance.
"I feel like the board members may not be taking into consideration the science behind the spreading of COVID-19 and how abundant it is in our state right now, versus the want for having schools back open," Ross said.
Ross was also concerned about whether the schools would have enough cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment and what might happen if a teacher or student catches the virus and spreads it further at home and in the community.
"It's a problem for literally everybody," Ross said.
Mark Rich, a social studies teacher at Schofield Middle School, said he is concerned for students and teachers who have health problems.
"I don't know that they are being adequately looked at by our state government," Rich said.
Tiffany Benward, a single mother, spoke against schools reopening in-person classes five days a week during the public comment period of the meeting.
"My daughter graduates this year," Benward said. "If she goes to school and she gets sick, she is going to bring it home to the only parents who is working to put food on the table?"
Samantha Cheatham, program director at the Boys and Girls Club of Aiken, was in support of schools resuming traditional learning full time. Cheatham said she has seen the effects of distance learning on students who cannot obtain broadband access at home.
"I'm on the front line of those children who don't necessarily have the means and technology to complete the distance learning packages because they don't have internet at home, they don't have laptops or they don't have the parents who are actually able to help them," Cheatham said.
Scott Patterson, a parent of three teenage girls, claimed the loss of in-person schooling had negatively impacted all of his children, especially his youngest daughter.
"I just think it needs to be an option," Patterson said. "The parents can decide whether they're comfortable sending their kids to school."
The ability to hold local police accountable is at the forefront of demands for addressing racial injustice from the Aiken County Branch of the NAACP.
Followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and protests nationwide calling for the end of police brutality and racial injustice, the local branch of the NAACP has been working through a list of demands it created in June, one being the need to establish a citizens review board for every law enforcement agency in the county.
Eugene White, Aiken County NAACP Branch president, read off the list of demands at a City of Aiken news conference in June involving government and community leaders in response to addressing racial injustice locally.
The local NAACP branch has been approaching the demands one at a time, White said. The branch recently checked off "banning the box," which refers to requiring job-seekers to reveal their criminal history on applications.
Aiken City Council unanimously passed a "ban the box" resolution July 13 that applies to city government jobs.
White says the branch will now move toward addressing demands relating to the area's law enforcement, including the need for citizens review boards for every law enforcement division throughout Aiken County.
Citizens review boards can be found in cities across the nation with a general goal of citizens addressing and reviewing complaints against local law enforcement officers.
White believes these boards are a tool to reinforce public trust in police.
"Our intent isn't to question the integrity of law enforcement leaders within the county," White said. "Citizen review boards are really a link between law enforcement and the community, an impartial body that ensures that law enforcement are handling engagements fairly."
Citizens Review Board in Aiken
In 2016, the City of Aiken established its own Citizens Review Board as a response to a lawsuit alleging an Aiken County man and woman were subjected to an illegal roadside cavity search during a traffic stop in October 2014.
The suit was filed in September 2015 in circuit court and then moved to federal court in November 2015.
Elijah Pontoon claimed he was subjected to a roadside cavity search in broad daylight on Horry Street near Richland Avenue in October 2014, according to the suit filed. Lakeya Hicks, who was with Pontoon during the police interaction, further alleged her chest was exposed during the search.
The City of Aiken responded to the suit immediately and later formed the Citizens Review Board, a board that specifically reviews complaints against Aiken Department of Public Safety officers.
On July 21, 2017, a settlement of $150,000 was reached between Pontoon and Hicks and the City of Aiken, according to documents.
Since its first meeting in 2017, Aiken's Citizens Review Board has held monthly meetings and has had the opportunity to review every complaint filed against Aiken Department of Public Safety officers.
John Dangler currently serves as chairperson to the review board of nine members who serve on a volunteer basis.
The board's makeup includes members of diverse races and work experience, Dangler said.
They hope to add on an additional member from Aiken's Hispanic community and possible additional members from Aiken's younger residents.
"I think the key things for a citizens review board is that we are committed to respect, accountability and transparency in serving the citizens in Aiken," Dangler said. "We're here to ensure professional and accountable law enforcement to our citizens."
When a complaint is filed against an officer with Aiken Public Safety, the officer's supervisor immediately conducts a thorough investigation which includes questioning the employee, witnesses and complainants, as well as collecting additional evidence, according to Aiken Public Safety policies and procedures.
The report containing findings and the supervisor's recommendations of the case are sent to Public Safety's director.
The director then reviews the report and any other supporting documents to make a final decision which is then communicated to the complainant.
If a complainant is not satisfied with the outcome of the investigation, Aiken Public Safety directs the complainant to the city's Citizens Review Board.
Dangler, a retired superior court judge from New Jersey and former Morris County prosecutor, said the board is allowed to review each complaint filed against Aiken's police officers.
The board reviews body and dash camera video in addition to reports and information documented by officers.
"We essentially look over each of these complaints to see if there's a pattern here of conduct that we need to be concerned with, or do we continue to feel that these findings are appropriate?" Dangler said.
The board then brings its findings to the complainant and to Public Safety.
In 2019, the Aiken Department of Public Safety received 18 complaints with 21 allegations, Dangler said. Of those, four were sustained.
Since the board's formation, there have not been any reports that would make the board concerned about the department's handling of complaints, Dangler said.
"The fact that we have very little cases speaks for itself; but at the same time, if we see something we're a little but concerned about, we'll let the department know," Dangler said.
Public safety for everyone
Conversations and questions concerning police accountability have come to light following Floyd's death after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes. Floyd later died in police custody.
The interaction was captured on video by a bystander and was shared globally on the internet.
The Associated Press reported Chauvin had nearly 20 complaints and two letters of reprimand filed against him during his 19-year career.
Chauvin's case stands as a reminder for what Aiken's board looks out for.
"If we had something where we have had repetitive complaints, of the officers acting inappropriately, we would be spending a lot of time with the chief," Dangler said. "We would be very concerned with what they are doing to deal with that situation."
Although Dangler is proud of the work Aiken's Citizens Review Board and city police have done to promote transparency and accountability, he believes no city is immune to cases such as what happened to Floyd in Minneapolis.
Dangler encourages law enforcement agencies to consider the idea of forming their own citizens review boards.
"In these times, I think that the county would be a good idea to look into it and see the pros and cons of having it," Dangler said. "You could have a minor incident happen in a little town that suddenly is an explosion publicity wise. That certainly could always happen in Aiken; and I think, because of the system we've set up, we'll hopefully never see that."
While White appreciates the work Aiken's Citizens Review Board accomplishes, he hopes new review boards for other municipalities in Aiken County will have "a little more bite," including the ability to hold independent investigations, call witnesses and be able to make strong recommendations when officer discipline is appropriate.
"The ultimate goal, really, is public safety for everyone," White said. "At the end of the story, we all want to live in a community that is safe for everyone."