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New criteria issued on when S.C. schools should go virtual

Published: Sep. 8, 2021 at 3:23 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. - The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control issued new guidance Wednesday on when schools should go virtual as a result of COVID-19 cases.

Shutting down campuses is one of the last tools for South Carolina school districts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, since state law prohibits them from imposing mask requirements.

As of Wednesday, there were 5,865 school cases of coronavirus, about 30% of the number of cases seen during all of the last school year, officials with the health agency said Wednesday afternoon during an update on the COVID situation.

On the issue of when it’s time for a school district to go virtual due to COVID cases, DHEC officials offered four criteria:

  • If the school can’t continue with current staffing.
  • If there are 30% or more absences because of cases and quarantines.
  • If positive case rates are 5% or more.
  • Based on guidance from local health officials.

Public Health Director Dr. Brannon Traxler said it is “not currently feasible” for the agency to order safety measures like a mask mandate in schools. She said DHEC has an emergency authority to respond quickly to local situations or outbreaks “where rapid action is necessary and steps can be taken to prevent immediate imminent danger.”

“Should the situation in a school or school district warrant, DHEC may consider issuing a public health order for masks on a by-location basis,” she said.

The order may not be enforceable due to the state budget stipulation that bans mask mandates.

Experts are hearing concerns from districts about high numbers of cases among students and school employees about the high number of quarantines. Districts are also asking for more information on COVID testing and shortened quarantine options.

SEE DHEC GUIDANCE FOR SCHOOL DISTRICTS:

3 reasons for COVID increase in schools

Traxler said schools are seeing the number of cases among students and teachers at rates that are higher than this same time last year.

“There are three main reasons why COVID-19 is affecting our students and teachers so much this year,” Traxler said. “Not enough people are vaccinated. Not enough people are consistently improperly wearing masks, and the Delta variant is proven to be hyper transmissible, it is so easily spread.”

Children under the age of 11 are not currently eligible to take any of the existing COVID-19 vaccines, so they remain susceptible, she said.

“The way that we protect our children is for everyone who is 12 and older to get fully vaccinated immediately,” she said.

The number of cases already recorded since the current school year began weeks ago is already about 30% of the total number of cases last school year, she said.

As of the latest report from DHEC, South Carolina has surpassed three-quarters of a million cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began and is just four deaths away from reaching a death toll of 11,000.

DHEC won’t ‘place blame’ for spike in cases

Traxler confirmed during Wednesday’s briefing that DHEC is not currently tracking the percentage of unvaccinated people in the state who are believed to have some level of natural immunity to the virus that causes COVID-19.

But she declined to place blame on the increase in new cases.

“I don’t think that this is a matter of who to blame for a public health standpoint. We know that the answers to stopping the spread of this virus are vaccines, wearing masks, washing hands and practicing physical distancing while enough of the population is getting vaccinated,” she said. “These methods have proven to be effective and we need all of them occurring simultaneously, as I noted, until we get immunity up to a high enough level in the community to give ourselves the best chance of ending this pandemic.”

She said it is “frustrating” to see messages about safety and the importance of wearing masks go seemingly ignored by non-scientists.

“It’s frustrating to know and have the answer, and have the evidence that backs that answer, and to still see the same problems persist,” she said. “Again, DHEC is not interested, myself included, in pointing fingers or blaming one person or group of people, because this pandemic, which really is unprecedented, as we’ve heard so many times, is so complex, it’s just so much more complex than one person or one group of people.”

Other DHEC details

Among the other news out of the update session Wednesday:

  • Experts hope that in the fall, the Pfizer COVID vaccine will get emergency authorization for use on kids under 12. For babies under 6 months, approval is possible by next summer.
  • Both the flu shot and COVID vaccine can be given in the same visit, experts believe.
  • DHEC is not aware of any shortages of COVID tests. Increased demand hasn’t affected the result time window. If you don’t receive your results in 72 hours, call 888-697-9004 or email acc-testing-customerservice@dhec.sc.gov to get your results.
  • Experts are still tracking coronavirus mutations of concern, but haven’t seen any new ones recently. Mu is not a variant of concern yet. Variants of concern means it has data to show that it’s more dangerous than the current version.
  • Experts strongly encourage those who are under quarantine for COVID exposure to remain in quarantine during the time frame, not just for school. The more people who are potentially infected are around others, the more cases we’ll see.

From reports by WRDW/WAGT and WCSC.