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SC releases updated COVID guidance for schools, districts

Published: Sep. 8, 2021 at 2:01 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 8, 2021 at 3:52 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - The public health director for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is releasing new guidance for schools amid an increase in COVID-19 cases.

Dr. Brannon Traxler said DHEC’s new guidance offers thresholds for school districts to consider when determining whether they should implement virtual learning.

THE LIST: Lowcountry schools, districts announce virtual learning plans

The thresholds were developed by DHEC’s medical epidemiologist.

“These are not requirements,” she said. “They are guidelines and recommendations that could better assist our school officials who continue to be challenged with making really difficult decisions, but who we know are acting in the best interest of protecting the health of their students, their students’ families and their dedicated teachers and staff.”

According to the new guidance, districts should consider going temporarily virtual in the following scenarios:

  • The school is unable to maintain operations with current staffing as determined by the school district;
  • 30% or higher rate of absenteeism in the school or grade level because of COVID (including students in isolation or quarantine);
  • 5-10% or higher of the student body in isolation simultaneously after testing positive or being assumed positive;
  • When discussed with and recommended by local medical and public health professionals based on the area healthcare system’s capacity.

Previous guidance released to schools and districts did not include those thresholds to help districts determine whether to switch to virtual learning.

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.

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.”

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