COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Heading back to school usually means hugs with old friends, handshakes with new teachers, and long conversations with new classmates, but that’s exactly what epidemiologists fear.
In the days leading up to the beginning of the school year for University of South Carolina students and public school students across the state, experts say there’s some good news for South Carolina.
“The number of new COVID-19 cases reported each day appears to be declining, though they are still much higher than they were during the lockdown last spring,” UofSC epidemiology and biostatistics assistant professor, Stella Self said. “Statewide hospitalization numbers seem to be declining also, though less dramatically than the decline in cases,” she added. As for the percent of tests that are coming back positive, it is still too early to tell if that data point is decreasing, although a graph from DHEC shows the trendline for the percent positive rate is going down slightly.
However, Self and her colleague assistant professor Monique Brown believe case numbers in the Palmetto State will rise again two weeks to a month after the start of the school year.
Despite many school districts coming up with strict guidelines for buses and classrooms to be regularly cleaned, for students to wear masks, to separate desks, and to keep students in small groups, there are other factors that may contribute to the rise in cases beyond these rules.
Both Self and Brown said their research on previous epidemics and an examination of the early weeks of COVID-19 show people become fatigued to guidelines after a while.
"Sometimes people get tired of wearing masks or face coverings," Brown said. "I think in general people get tired of the new norm and go back to the norm they knew before," she added.
Brown also said the back-to-school period often causes people to break their routines and potentially have new interactions; therefore, creating a risk for spread.
"Parents are going to get supplies for their children. When people come to campus for USC there are going to be more interactions outside the classroom. People may be going to restaurants, going to the mall," she said.
Brown’s other concern surrounding potential spread is that parents who work in service jobs, many of whom are in underserved communities, will need to send their children to school while they go to their jobs. Therefore, these families will be at a higher risk of exposure because the whole household isn’t staying home all day, but they have worse healthcare at times than those with jobs that allow them to work from home. In addition, Brown said some of these families live in multi-generational households, which means older family members who are at high-risk may be exposed to the virus.
However, Self added moving around and keeping kids together doesn't necessarily mean the virus will spread. She said looking at publicly available cell phone GPS data, it appears South Carolinians have been moving around just as much this summer as they did before the pandemic hit. However, the key is for people to remain vigilant about washing hands, wearing masks, and keeping their distance despite being in a new routine.
To prove this point, self-referenced a recent CDC report that looked at a summer camp in Georgia where campers weren’t required to wear masks, but campers were. Self said that studied found one member of the camp staff contracted COVID-19 and the camp closed, but 44 percent of the camp still contracted the virus
“This situation demonstrates how quickly the virus can spread without proper safety precautions, even among children. On the other hand, many other summer camps followed stricter safety precautions and made it through the summer without major outbreaks. It really just goes to show what a different safety precautions can make,” Self said.