As South Carolinians debate reopening schools, doctors and educators say safety is the priority

Updated: Jul. 12, 2020 at 6:19 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - This weekend, DHEC reported the first death of a child younger than five in South Carolina as a result of the coronavirus.

DHEC also reported two children under the age of 10 have been infected with a rare disease linked to coronavirus called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C.

These headlines and news of COVID-19 breakouts at summer camps are worrying teachers and parents as schools could reopen in just a matter of weeks.

Pediatrician Dr. Deborah Greenhouse said these worries turned into a debate when the American Academy of Pediatrics, AAP, released a statement supporting school reopening at the end of June.

"The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school," began the statement.

This line received backlash from teachers and parents, leading the AAP to release a second statement, in coordination with teacher-led organizations, to clarify.

“Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers, and should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools,” the group wrote.

Greenhouse said there’s no distance between doctors and teachers -- both groups ultimately want children back in school if and when it’s safe for students, staff and teachers to do so.

However, when that will be is unclear because South Carolina is seeing increased daily COVID-19 cases and is close to reaching 1,000 reported coronavirus-related deaths.

“We could see big spikes right about the time school is starting,” Greenhouse said in reference to upcoming events in the state like Myrtle Beach’s Bike Week and increased infection of holiday weekends like the Fourth of July.

She added: “I think that puts us in a very tenuous situation and it makes it much much harder to come up with a plan because the situation we see today and situation we see in the middle of August could look very very different.”

Greenhouse also said every family, teacher, school, district and region needs to make a decision on going back to school that matches what their area is seeing.

This uncertainty is made worse for teachers because many of them haven't seen their district's exact reopening plan so they can make these decisions, according to South Carolina Education Association President Sherry East.

“There is the uncertainty of, what will school look like if we go back to face-to-face? Are we going to have masks? Are we not going to have masks? Are we going to quarantine if we test positive? Are we going to lose sick time? All of the teachers are asking the practical parts of this,” East said.

She is not critical of the districts and said she knows the majority of them are working on a plan with the safety of staff in mind.

“I think districts are struggling with what is the right thing, and can we afford to do the right thing? Can we afford keeping us safe? Can we afford the cleaning materials? Can we afford the buses? Can we afford the A/B days? The concern is the what-ifs,” she explained.

Although, East added, it’s in most teachers’ nature to want to prepare for the fall during the summer.

“If I could tell teachers ‘just take a break, take a breather for a week’ -- but they don’t do that. That’s not going to happen” East said.

Dr. Greenhouse said research shows gathering children together in schools is not as risky as other large gatherings like people at movie theaters or going to parties.

She said not only do children usually experience milder symptoms, if any, they aren’t the ones who tend to spread coronavirus.

“The child is not usually transmitting it back up to an adult, and the child is not usually transmitting it to other children. It is usually a downward trend from the adult to the sick child,” Greenhouse said. “We don’t know why that is, but it has been really consistent.”

Greenhouse also explained the spread of COVID-19 at overnight summer camps can’t be equated to what schools may experience.

"When young children catch coronavirus they are traditionally catching it from a household contact, and when you send a kid to camp you're turning everyone into a household contact...that overnight setting is just a totally different ballgame," Greenhouse said.

For East, a low probability of illness isn’t enough to help her feel comfortable with going back to in-person learning.

East served on the AccelerateED task force put together to create a plan for schools in fall, but said the task force came up with guidelines for different scenarios. In addition, the guidelines were finished before the state began to see a sharp increase in cases, she said.

What some teachers want to see is a district-by-district action plan.

“Until we know we have safety measures in place, I can’t encourage schools to open until we have guarantees or assurances that we are going to keep those people safe,” East said.

Greenhouse was in full agreement.

“We need to make sure we are putting in all the precautions that we can,” she said. “There are a lot of things that we have learned can help the scenario, we need to put all those things in place. We do need to accept that we can’t make the risk be zero, so we need to pay attention to what’s going on in the communities, and make the decision to open the schools when everyone believes it is safe to do so.”

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