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S.C. schools now operating with relaxed DHEC guidelines on quarantining amid staffing shortage

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Published: Jan. 17, 2022 at 5:11 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 17, 2022 at 7:26 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - South Carolina’s school districts have new tools in keeping their schools open.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control announced Sunday the department changed its K-12 guidance to allow for the following scenario:

School teachers and staff who are not maximally (up to date) vaccinated and who have been exposed to COVID-19 but have no symptoms do not need to quarantine, as long as they have a negative test on day 5 after their exposure and wear a mask for 10 days after exposure.

This action is being taken to alleviate school staff shortages in communities with significant outbreaks and is in keeping with the latest understanding and analysis of the risks and benefits. This change will allow more schools to continue providing in-person education for students when they otherwise could not maintain operations due to staffing and would have to close.

The department defines “maximally vaccinated” in the guidance as follows:

A person who has completed their primary vaccine series, including an additional dose if immunocompromised, and has had a booster shot if eligible.

In addition, the updated guidance relaxed rules on quarantining testing requirements for students/staffers who are “testing to stay” and those who are facing a 5-day quarantine period.

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The changes come during a school year when thousands of teachers and students across the state have been removed from the classroom because of COVID-19 cases and/or exposures.

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Midlands school districts are grappling with staffing shortages, with several districts going full or partially virtual this month because of lacking staffers.

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Public Health Director Dr. Brannon Traxler said the number of applicable teachers impacted by the change is not clear but assisting schools has become a priority.

“Really over the last week, as we saw the number of closures dramatically increasing is when we started thinking and brainstorming and how could we, what was an approach that would be safe, would be an acceptably safe alternative, but that would prevent some of these closures, and this is what we came to,” she said.

She said change for unvaccinated staffers should be used only by districts in a staffing “crisis,” but conceded each district will be able to implement the change as it chooses.

South Carolina Education Association President Sherry East said association members are expressing less concern about the health impacts of COVID as compared to the strain it’s putting on teacher manpower.

“One teacher did in fact tell me, she’s like ‘I’m worried for my physical safety, there are too many children in the auditorium for one person to be in charge of. What if a fight breaks out, what if there’s a physical altercation, I cannot possibly handle this on my own,” she said.

East also expressed concern that backlogs in testing will undermine the policy change.

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“I know they’re working on it, we really need to implement the test to stay programs, but we need the tests. We need to be able to have those on hand,” she said.

Dr. Traxler said DHEC is in talks with districts about making more rapid tests available to them.

She echoed DHEC’s long-running support for COVID-19 vaccinations.

“It is not necessarily a free pass; it does not get you the same ability to avoid quarantine that vaccination does, because this is really only for use in an crisis or emergency-type staffing situation,” she said.

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