S.C. health leaders studying options as COVID spreads in schools

Published: Sep. 2, 2021 at 9:13 AM EDT
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AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - As school districts across South Carolina see varying levels of spread, some question what state health leaders can do to curb it — particularly when it comes to making masks mandatory.

As an example of how badly schools are being hit, the Aiken County school district has more than 4,000 students — 17 percent of the student population — in quarantine right now.

That’s led some parents to call for action. But the district can’t impose a mask mandate because a stipulation in the state budget bans that.

Dr. Brannon Traxler, director of public health for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, said last week that while the agency does generally have emergency authority to control the spread of disease, that authority was developed so that the agency could respond rapidly to local situations or outbreaks.

Only some school districts met that definition at the time, so a statewide decision would be difficult to implement.

Traxler did say a localized, county approach could be a different story.

“That is something that I would need to defer to the lawyers about,” she said. “But I know that we do — when we have this authority — it’s indication is to be used for local situations, so that is potentially the case.”

Several local schools and districts have gone virtual after consultation with DHEC due to the number of COVID positive test and quarantines. Among them are Merriweather Middle School, districts in Allendale, McCormick and Bamberg counties, and Williston schools.

DHEC’s medical consultant, Dr. Jonathan Knoche, was asked if the department was looking at the spread in school districts to help determine if they might use any of that emergency authority.

“So we are looking at cases across the state in children and schools, and we’re asking schools to share their information about the number of cases and contacts with us as well,” he said. “That’s placing, we recognize, significant burden on the schools and the school nurses, but I think, in order for us to make accurate recommendations and evidence-based recommendations, we need to make sure that we’re basing it on reliable information and data.”

“That’s something that we’re in the process of continuing to gather,” Knoche continued, “Making sure that when we make recommendations to schools, school boards - that we’re having accurate information to do that - so that’s something that we’re actively working on.”

DHEC continues to maintain that the state proviso currently in place that bans mask mandates in schools lies in the Legislature’s lap.

From reports by WRDW/WAGT and WMBF