S.C. health officials release COVID-19 guidance for upcoming school year

The guidance reflects the latest COVID-19 trends and may change as the situation changes
Published: Jul. 29, 2021 at 7:57 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WBTV) - South Carolina health officials have released COVID-19 guidance for students, parents and staff for the coming school year.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control came out with a strong message for what it would like the new school year to look like. The agency siding with the Centers for Disease Control to strongly encourage masks, social distancing, and vaccines in the new year. The state’s top doctor says she thinks this guidance is the best way to keep cases as low as possible.

Some parents nervous that the recommendation is just not enough as cases in the state are on the rise.

”When these kids get back in school and get back around each other it’s gonna increase,” says Kentaya Burris. ”Just very very cautious.”

Burris will leave nothing to chance with her kids going back to school this year. Her kids went in-person for the last school year which she described as “rough.”

”My kids will take the same precautions that they did last year if not even more,” she says.

Her two middle schoolers and one high school student will be stocked with masks and hand sanitizer. Neither are required by her students’ school district.

”I didn’t agree with that but at the same time my kids are going to be cautious regardless of the decision the district made?” she explains.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s interim guidance includes recommendations that reflect the latest COVID-19 trends and may change as the situation changes.

Some key points include:

  • Schools are strongly encouraged to work with local public health officials and healthcare facilities and professionals to provide factual information and education about COVID-19 vaccination and to increase access to COVID-19 vaccines by coordinating vaccine clinics for staff, students, and families who wish to be vaccinated.
  • DHEC strongly recommends mask use for all people when indoors in school settings, especially when physical distancing is not possible. Children under two years old, anyone who has trouble breathing, or anyone unable to remove the face covering without assistance should not wear a mask. DHEC recognizes mask use cannot be mandated per the SC General Assembly but is providing the following guidance for teachers, staff and parents.
  • At least three feet of distance between each student should be maintained to the greatest extent possible.
  • Case investigation and contact tracing are critical strategies to identify and isolate cases and test and quarantine close contacts to reduce transmission.
  • Mask use is required on school buses and other public transportation per federal CDC Order regardless of the mask policy at school or the individual’s vaccination status; school systems should take appropriate steps to ensure compliance with this requirement by students, staff, and others.

Burris’ district and the six others in our area are giving different messages than the one the state’s health agency just released. The Department of Health and Environmental Control is strongly encouraging masks in schools, social distancing of about three feet and pushing vaccines for anyone who is eligible.

Our seven districts’ plans tell parents they can send their students to school maskless, but some fall short of encouraging them. Social distancing is not discussed in most and desk shields are planning to be removed. Vaccines are talked about mostly for staff, if at all.

As Burris read DHEC’s guidance, she feels she aligns closer with the state.

”It’s reassuring they do feel the same way but I just wish that the district would get on one accord with DHEC,” says Burris.

”What we put out is guidance,” says Dr. Traxler. “It is not a requirement.”

DHEC’s Dr. Brannon Traxler says the guide is just that. So, the health officials understand if schools’ plans do not look exactly the same.

”We are not homogenous across the state so they have to put out the best guidance and guidelines for their specific location,” says Traxler.

Burris hoping the state would take a firmer position so her kids, and everyone else’s, can stay safe.

”A lot of people say let’s get back to the norm but there is no norm,” she says. “This is just how it is.”

The full guidance can be found here.

“Our first priority is the safety of our children and teachers,” said Dr. Edward Simmer, DHEC Director, in an issued statement. “That is why, above all else, we’re urging all eligible South Carolinians to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated if they haven’t already done so. The last thing we want is for COVID-19 to spread through our schools causing avoidable illness. Our students and educators deserve the right to learn and teach in a safe, healthy environment, and vaccinations will make that possible. The use of masks and other precautions recommended in our guidance will also help ensure a safe, healthy environment in our schools especially with the emergence of the Delta variant.”

DHEC reported nearly 19,000 COVID-19 cases among students and faculty through June 18, 2021, per the agency’s COVID-19 school dashboard.

Officials say vaccinations are the best way to not continue to see cases in schools and to end the pandemic.

“DHEC has been a tremendous partner for our agency and continues to provide sound public health advice for our students, families, and educators as we navigate the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic. All members of our state’s education system should familiarize themselves with this latest guidance and schools and districts should implement the appropriate prevention strategies,” said State Superintendent Molly Spearman.

“As noted in the guidance, vaccines remain the most effective tool we have to combat the virus and can ensure our school communities have the safest, most normal, uninterrupted school year possible. I encourage families of vaccine-eligible students to speak with their pediatrician and strongly consider the personal protections and public health benefits of vaccination.”

Vaccinations are available for ages 12 and up at many locations across the state. Visit DHEC’s information page for more information on the vaccines, and the locator page to schedule a vaccine appointment.

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