The largest public school district already in session in South Carolina has halted in-person classes and will go all-virtual temporarily after COVID-19 cases spread exponentially in the first nine days.
The School District of Pickens County, with 15,825 in-person students, reported 634 students have been quarantined as 142 cases were reported within the district by Aug. 13. It also reported 26 cases among staff, including 11 cases among staff members who have been vaccinated, said Pickens County school spokesman Darian Byrd.
The first day of school in Pickens County was Aug. 3.
At an emergency meeting Aug. 13, the district’s school board authorized the superintendent to move all students to virtual learning. Virtual classes begin Wednesday.
It comes as most of state’s schools are prepared to begin classes in-person and without mask requirements next week. Greenville County Schools, the state’s largest district, begins classes Aug. 17 as does Anderson County. Spartanburg County schools start on Aug. 16.
School leaders and some legislators have asked to reconsider a budget proviso that outlawed local school districts from instituting their own safety measures, including masks and limited in-person schedules.
Gov. Henry McMaster, in Greenville on Aug. 13, said he was getting information hourly about the current spread of the virus and that he considered his position “flexible.” He said his COVID response team with AccelerateSC was “contemplating what to do.”
But he continued to stress that parents needed to be involved in decisions made in the schools and that school should be held in person.
“We do not want a school official telling a child you must wear a mask, and the mama or daddy saying ‘we do not want our child wearing a mask,’” McMaster said.
He also said the state doesn’t have enough beds at children’s hospitals, so it wasn’t surprising to him that they would be near or at capacity. Prisma Health reported Aug. 12 it was treating 12 pediatric patients with COVID across its hospital system. In early July, the hospital was treating 12 COVID-19 patients total.
The state health department reported 225 patients ages 10 and younger have been hospitalized with COVID-19 during the pandemic. The American Association of Pediatrics reported that as of Aug. 5 there were nearly 94,000 new pediatric cases of COVID-19 across the country.
In Pickens County Schools, the cases have grown exponentially since the first day of school, Byrd said. The district reported six cases among students the first day. That number, and the corresponding number of students in quarantine, has grown each day since.
“That is a cause for great alarm,” Byrd said.
The highest number of positive COVID-19 cases in Pickens during the 2020-21 school year was 85 student cases on Jan. 7, he said.
This year, Pickens County has only required students to quarantine as “close contacts” if they were seated within three feet of someone who tested positive, Byrd said. Last year, the district considered students within six feet a close contact and required them to quarantine.
With more nearly 640 students in quarantine after just nine days of school under the new quarantine rule, “what would that number be” under last school year’s standard, he wondered.