CAMDEN — A South Carolina school district inside one of the state’s first coronavirus hot spots was singled out by Gov. Henry McMaster for its ability to stay open through the pandemic while avoiding mask mandates.
“I would say this is one of the model districts for our state and possibly even the nation in using all the tools that are available without being obtrusive or invading privacy,” McMaster said Sept. 15 at Camden Elementary School during a roundtable with Kershaw County School District officials and nurses.
The 10,873-student district 30 miles east of Columbia never suspended face-to-face operations, and was an early adopter of the data-tracking dashboards now in place across most of the state’s school systems.
“We track our data every day, multiple times a day,” Kershaw County Superintendent Shane Robbins said. “One of the things that I have consistently shared with my team is ‘facts over fear,’ and we want to make decisions based on the data.”
Some of South Carolina's first confirmed cases of coronavirus were found in the county in March 2020, and Robbins' district was among the first to request a stockpile of personal protective equipment from a $10 million statewide purchasing plan.
Many of the procedures used in 2020 are still in place.
In elementary schools, grades are split for lunch: Half go to cafeterias and sit 3 feet apart, while the rest eat in their classrooms.
At Lugoff-Elgin Middle School, Principal Eugene Cameron uses a yardstick to ensure all desks are 3 feet apart.
The district became the first in South Carolina to install a thermal imaging system, spending $75,000 through federal aid and its own budget to set the devices up in all 20 of its schools last summer.
“They’re using all the tools and in combination, it has produced a tremendous result,” McMaster said.
As of Sept. 14, the district had 574 students who have either tested positive or are in quarantine — down from a high of 1,563 on Aug. 20.
Officials said aggressive contact tracing, social distancing and other measures have kept positivity rates among students in quarantine below 1 percent.
“We know they need to be in school. They learn better in school,” said Elizabeth Starling, the district’s head nurse. She said officials at times have used surveillance footage from buses to determine close contacts if a student tests positive.
School board trustee Todd McDonald said the district has looked for ways to stay nimble while committing itself to keeping classrooms open.
“We have all these things in place to say, ‘We’re willing to move and change at a moment’s notice,’ not only in our district but in specific areas of our county,” he said.
McMaster has refused calls by a growing number of lawmakers, teacher advocacy groups and public health officials to issue a statewide mask mandate in schools — and lawmakers in the budget made such a move illegal under the threat of pulling aid from districts.
Even so, several have voted to do so as a firewall against rising COVID numbers that threaten to shutter schools. Charleston County, Richland One and Lexington Two school districts all have face- covering requirements in place.
McMaster said the successes in Kershaw County suggest mask mandates aren’t the cure-all some believe.
“The parents are the ones that need to make that decision. What has been done here has demonstrated that you do not need to force people to do things to get great progress,” he said.