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Between mask waivers and vaccines, school-aged children have options

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Kat Bouziane, a registered nurse at Stall High School, gives Ashlynn Pinckney, 12, her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Laing Middle School in Mount Pleasant on May 25, 2021. “Just knowing that I have the vaccine, I know I won’t get COVID-19 again,” Pinckney said. Lauren Petracca/Staff

It has been nearly two weeks since mask waivers were first introduced to school districts across South Carolina.

On May 11, Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order giving parents statewide the option of whether to have their child wear masks in public schools, something long advocated in local school districts.

At that time, the South Carolina Education Association sent out a news release stating teachers considered this decision to be "reckless."

Now, almost a month since parents were given the decision to unmask their children and only weeks from the end of the school year, Amanda Santamaria, the Dorchester district's coordinator of school nurses, said roughly 7 percent of the district's students have signed waivers opting out of wearing masks while at school.

For a district that serves some 26,000 students, that means several hundred or more students arrive at school each day without masks on. Overall, Santamaria said, those numbers are a far cry from a major percentage of the population. However, the removal of masks for some students has caused a rethinking of what the definition of "close contact" is while contact tracing. These changes have led to an uptick in students, whether they used a mask or not, needing to quarantine due to exposure.

The number of signed S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control consent forms, which are the standardized mask waivers for schools in the state, trickling in changes daily, Santamaria said. Occasionally, some parents revoke the waiver, as well.

With masks now optional and the Pfizer vaccine, which is the one available to those 12 to 15 years old, becoming more and more available to students, what does this mean for the coming school year?

When COVID-19 first spread across the country, elderly populations and those with preexisting conditions were classified as most at risk. Now, as vaccines have been offered to large portions of those communities throughout the state, Dr. Lee Biggs, Trident Health’s chief medical officer, said the most-vulnerable population to the virus is shifting to children. With students back in the classrooms for face-to-face learning and masks now optional, children, who are largely unvaccinated, are more exposed than most other populations in the state, who have had more opportunities to become vaccinated already. 

When it comes to school-aged students, immunization requirements are put in place by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, and at the moment, the COVID-19 vaccine remains optional for students in the district for the next school year.

“At this point, the COVID-19 vaccine is not a requirement just like the flu vaccine; it's still optional for all students and staff and it's not being required for school attendance at this time,” Santamaria said, nothing that unless DHEC establishes a requirement for the vaccine, the district has no plans to make it mandatory.

Other districts in the area are on the same page. Katie Tanner, Berkeley County School Districts' public information officer, reported that the district also had no current plans to require the vaccine in the fall. Still, some larger universities throughout the nation have already taken steps to mandate the vaccine. 

“For secondary education, you have a lot of people that are just not in favor of vaccines and they are not denied school entry. If you look at the college and university systems, there are some pretty well-known schools that have said if you want in-person instruction, you better have a completed vaccine card,” Biggs said.

Although the vaccine is looking like it will remain optional in local school districts for some time, it is being encouraged.

“Our biggest thing that we can say is that there is proof that the vaccine is working. We have nationwide definitely seen the impact of having a good majority of Americans vaccinated and I think that's something that we are hopeful for in the future,” Santamaria said. “For everyone that's wanting to get back to a normal world and school year for the upcoming school year, we would just encourage parents who feel comfortable to take advantage of the fact that school-aged children can get the vaccine right now.”

“The country is opening back up, and it's not because this virus is on vacation it's because we have done something for the first time proactive to assault this virus directly and that's get enough people vaccinated,” Biggs said.

Trident Medical Center announced it has begun offering the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccination to families for children ages 12 to 15. To receive a vaccine, children must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. Vaccines, which are free to the community, will be offered on a first come first serve basis with no appointment needed. The center is at 9330 Medical Plaza Drive, Charleston, SC 29406.

First doses of the Pfizer vaccine were offered starting on June 3 and will be offered again on June 10 from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Second doses of the vaccine will be given on June 24 from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and July 1 from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Trident Medical Center Café B.

Biggs says the medical center plans to administer around 3,000 vaccines in the coming weeks. Earlier, when the medical center offered vaccine clinics to the adult populations, an eight-hour clinic would sometimes only bring in about 100 people. As long as there remains a demand for the Pfizer vaccine, Biggs says he hopes to continue offering clinics to the community.

The initial call to allow students to opt-out of wearing a mask was made with about three weeks left of school for the year, making it hard to ever see exactly what kind of effect it will have on COVID-19 cases in school. It is still too soon to tell, Santamaria says, whether the introduction of maskless learning for some students within the district has led to any significant increase in COVID-19 cases.

“As with any COVID-19 situation you never can say for certain where someone picked it up and where they potentially got the virus,” Santamaria said. But the district is continuing to focus on other mitigation strategies such as staff members and visitors wearing face masks, keeping plexiglass in place, and encouraging hand hygiene to combat any potential spread.

The last day of school for DD2 is June 16 and for BCSD, it is June 17. As the school year inches closer to an end medical experts are hopeful that the summer will bring greater volumes of vaccination. If efforts aren't made during the upcoming summer months to get the school-aged demographic vaccinated, Biggs says, this could lead to serious problems at the start of the school year in the fall.

“If we go back in the fall with in-person instructions and we don't have adequate vaccine uptick rates, you are going to see cases in kids because they are the remaining at-risk population. So masks no masks, it's not going to matter unless we get a sizable portion vaccinated,” Biggs said. “If you want to get back to normalcy and you don't want your kid to potentially get COVID-19 or give it to someone else, then you need to roll up that sleeve and get to a vaccine site this summer so that they can have a normal school year when the schools open back up.”