How the school district and the Raceway beat COVID-19
By Bobby Bryant
As I’m writing this, the Darlington Raceway has completed three NASCAR races under COVID-19 quarantine conditions and the Darlington County School District is preparing to hold four high-school graduations, also under quarantine rules.
If nothing goes wrong – in other words, if there are no more drenching rainstorms – then, by the time you read this, the DCSD should have put on outdoor graduations for Darlington High School, Hartsville High School, Lamar High School and Mayo High School for Math, Science and Technology on June 2. The district should soon be wrapping up the semester.
The only reason there is even a semester to wrap up is because the DCSD immediately switched over to “online learning” when Gov. Henry McMaster shut down all S.C. public schools in March to counteract the coronavirus threat. If the district had not had a classes-by-computer system (“eLearning”) already standing by for weather disasters (winter storms, hurricanes), public education in Darlington County pretty much would have stopped in March.
Likewise, the COVID-19 threat – the worst public-health crisis the United States has faced in a century – shut down NASCAR’s racing season. NASCAR officials decided to try to restart the season, without any fans in the stands, with three nearly back-to-back races at the Darlington Raceway in May.
Three races? In four days? With no spectators and almost no press? Under quarantine conditions – temperature checks, masks all around? No problem! We do this all the time!
Of course it was a problem. A big problem. But Raceway President Kerry Tharp and his staff made it work, just as Darlington County Education Superintendent Tim Newman and his staff found a way around their own COVID-19 dilemma.
Were they able to find perfect solutions? No. The school district’s online-learning system was intended for use in short bursts, if county schools got shut down by another Hurricane Hugo or winter deep-freeze storm. Nobody expected it to be used every day for months.
And without question, online learning won’t work for everyone. There have been bitter complaints from parents whose kids just can’t do much with classes by computer. (“Just call the year. End this torture and let’s be done,” said one parent in a post on the district’s Facebook page.) Newman has said he is worried that 10 to 14 percent of the district’s students may be falling behind because of online learning.
But without it, 100 percent of those students would have fallen behind. And those four high-school graduations would not be taking place; the semester effectively would have dead-ended months ago.
Newman has worked to find ways to make up for the fact that seniors didn’t get the usual commencement honors (the district was planning to print a “tab” filled with the graduates’ photos and to set up “virtual” ceremonies for their families to view). Don’t sweat it, Dr. Newman. They’re leaving with a diploma in their hands, and they didn’t catch COVID-19. The district’s solution to the pandemic problem worked. The kids are finishing the semester in safety.
Same with the Darlington Raceway. Despite days of rain during race week, NASCAR was able to hold three races – two NASCAR Cup Series runs and one Xfinity Series run – between May 17 and May 21. The season has been restarted. TV ratings were good. No one had to be kicked out of the racetrack facilities, or fined by NASCAR, for failing to follow virus-safety rules. Except for rain delays, everything worked as NASCAR and the Raceway planned.
And even though COVID-19 kept the fans out, the races got noticed nationally. One example: Zach Sturniolo, sports writer for the Pocono Record of Stroudsburg, Pa.: “I can’t remember another Wednesday night that I’ve been excited about NASCAR. The Cup Series’ 500-kilometer race around Darlington Raceway on Wednesday checked all the boxes though, making the sport’s first midweek points race a definitive success.
“ … Wednesday night proved NASCAR can not only hold midweek events but can provide immense entertainment throughout them as well. … Midweek races work. And if the sanctioning body can keep this momentum up, it will be in fine shape going forward.”
And locally: Scott Chancey, sports writer for the (Florence) Morning News: “So what if there were no fans inside Darlington Raceway? NASCAR wasn’t originally supposed to be camped out at Darlington this week, anyway.
“We’ll count on fans packing those stands for this Labor Day Weekend’s Southern 500. This week has been about more than the fans. This has been about more than just NASCAR — and even sports. … Darlington served as a gracious host when NASCAR needed it most.”
How did the Darlington County School District and the Darlington Raceway beat the pandemic? Simple. They beat it by refusing to surrender to it.