District urges returning students to wear masks amid new surge
The Georgetown County School District is preparing to welcome teachers and students back to school in the next few weeks as the state once again finds itself with a rising number of COVID-19 cases.
A month ago, there were 115 new cases in the state, including two in Georgetown County. As of Monday, there were 2,035 new cases in the state, including 26 in the county.
Dr. Jonathan Knoche, a medical consultant with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, said Wednesday that the Delta variant is “significantly more transmissible” than when COVID-19 was originally discovered.
Knoche said Delta spreads like chicken pox, with each patient possibly infecting four times the number of people than a patient with the original strain of COVID-19.
On Tuesday, the Georgetown County School Board approved a reopening plan for the district that includes recommendations that students wear masks in schools and on buses and makes plexiglass barriers available to those who want it.
School Board Chairman Jim Dumm said he would like to do more, but the district’s hands are tied.
District officials would like students and staff to be vaccinated and wear masks when they return to school, but they can’t require them to do either.
Alan Walters, the district’s executive director of safety, said no matter what the district does, not everyone will be happy.
Districts are “trying to take the various guidances that we get, some of which conflict with one another, and come up with a plan we think best serves as many people as possible here in Georgetown County given our unique needs,” Walters added.
DHEC and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both recommend that all students and staff members wear masks indoors, regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated or not.
Under state law, districts cannot require that masks are worn.
Dumm said that is what he would do if he could set state policy.
“If I could be, I would dictate that nobody would be allowed in our school facilities unless they were completely vaccinated,” Dumm said. “That includes teachers, staff members and children that are eligible. Children that aren’t eligible yet, they would have to wear a mask.”
Dumm would require proof of vaccination from athletes and coaches coming from other districts for competitions, and any member of the public visiting a school.
“That’s the only way our country is going to solve this problem,” Dumm said. “I can’t imagine the people that were living back when we were fighting polio, small pox, diphtheria. If they had treated those vaccines the way this has become so politicized, we’d still be fighting those diseases.”
Gov. Henry McMaster has said continuously that parents should decide whether or not their child wears a mask in school.
“The Delta variant poses a real threat to South Carolinians,” McMaster said. “However, shutting our state down, closing our schools and mandating masks is not the answer. Personal responsibility is.”
“I think Gov. McMaster is doing a huge disservice to the children in this state. Something has to happen,” Dumm said. “I think something has to give and we have to be as forthright with our community as possible. Many of our children, I’m afraid, are going to be at risk. And it’s a choice that people who should be smarter are making.”
Although the CDC also recommends the wearing of masks on school buses, the state Department of Education is leaving the decision up to individual districts.
Georgetown will encourage, but not require, students and drivers to wear masks on buses, Walters said. Social distancing and a limited capacity of less than 68 percent will continue, he added.
School Board Member Lynne Ford would like the district to require that masks be worn on school buses.
“It’s going to be difficult, if we had a requirement, to enforce it,” Walters said. “Drivers would have a lot tougher job trying to do that.”
Plexiglass barriers have been removed from classrooms, but will be available for students or teachers who want to continue to use them.
“Any parent that would like it for their child, they need to notify us that that’s what they want and we’ll accommodate them,” Walters said.
Unvaccinated students and teachers who come into contact with someone in a classroom who later tests positive for COVID-19 will be required to quarantine, Walters said, even if they were wearing a mask.
According to Superintendent Keith Price, students wearing masks and sitting behind plexiglass barriers will probably not be considered in “close contact” with an infected person and may not have to quarantine.
“Teachers can also get creative if they wanted to in how they arrange seating arrangements as well plexiglass areas for those who request it for that extra layer of protection,” Price said. “We’re trying to be as accommodating within the rules as we can possibly be.”
The district is sticking with the staggered start times for schools that it instituted last September because COVID-19 safety protocols allowed for fewer students on buses and required that buses be cleaned between routes.
Elementary school instructional hours will be 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., intermediate school instructional hours will be 7:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m., and middle and high school instructional hours will be 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
To accommodate parents who have to drop off children early or pick them up late, elementary and intermediate schools will open to students at 7 a.m. and close at 3 p.m., and middle and high schools will open to students at 7:30 a.m. and close at 4 p.m.
“We considered the public input … in looking at how can we try to accommodate as many people as possible,” Walters said. “Hopefully this would accommodate the schedules for those folks that have multiple students and don’t use bus transportation.”
The district may adjust the extra time before and after school depending on how many students are dropped off during those time periods, Walters added.
Teachers return to their classrooms on Wednesday. The first day of school for students is Aug. 18.