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Dorchester County continues with No. 1 COVID incident rate status as schools go virtual

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Dorchester County public schools will be virtual starting on Sept. 7, 2021. The county has the highest COVID-19 incidence rate in the Carolinas. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

SUMMERVILLE — All Dorchester County public schools will be virtual starting Sept. 7 as the county continues to have the highest COVID-19 incidence rate in the Carolinas. 

According to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, the county is reporting more than 2,600 new COVID cases per 100,000 people between Aug. 18 and 31. The second highest are Florence and Hampton counties, with over 1,800 cases.

In Dorchester County, there are also a little over 50 patients receiving care for COVID at the Summerville Medical Center. There are 124 total hospital beds at the center.

Mario Formisano, Dorchester's deputy administrator of public safety, said they are well aware of the high COVID activity. 

"The county is actively working with the local and state public health partners to ensure adequate availability of testing and vaccination opportunities," he said.

In response to the high activity, Formisano said they're now requiring face coverings inside all county buildings. They also installed glass partitions at office counters and increased cleaning of frequently touched surfaces.

Area health care officials repeated calls for residents to get vaccinated if they can.

"Our request to Lowcountry families is, the best way they can care for a caregiver is to get vaccinated," said Rod Whiting, a spokesperson for Trident Health. 

The high county incidence rate comes at a time when Dorchester District 2, the county's largest school district, has also seen a noticeable increase in the number of students having to quarantine. 

As of Sept. 1, more than 4,800 students are under quarantine following close contact with positive COVID cases. District officials said that's more than 20 percent of their student population. That, combined with COVID testing delays, has made things complicated in the area, staff said.

"I don't think we have any class right now that has been untouched," said Julie Kornahrens, the DD2 assistant superintendent. 

Some students are required to quarantine as long as 24 days due to issues with not being able to isolate at home. Amanda Santamaria, the district's nurse coordinator, said they are looking into options to reduce quarantine time to as few as seven days. 

There are several reasons quarantine has been more of an issue this school year, she said.

There aren't any face-covering requirements in schools. The delta variant is a lot a more contagious. Quarantining is also something that's not optional for the district, she said. Those orders come from the state. 

One of the biggest reasons for the difference is that more students are in class in person versus virtually. "So (the classrooms) are very full," Santamaria said. 

Dorchester District 4 will be virtual on Sept. 7 until further notice. At a Sept. 1 workshop meeting, DD2 school board members voted 6-1 to send all students to seven days of virtual learning starting Sept 7. 

While the number of students out was concerning, officials said one of their biggest worries revolved around teachers. "We still have to run our schools," said DD2 Superintendent Joseph Pye. 

At the meeting, officials announced 265 staff members were absent. The district has also seen nine teacher resignations. 

Because of a shortage of substitute teachers, the district is having to get administrative staff members, math coaches and interventionists to fill in as subs.  

The same shortage is being seen in all departments, from bus drivers and food service workers to custodial and maintenance staff, and even school nurses. 

An average of 10 nurses are out daily due to COVID and other issues. 

"So that's quite a hit to our schools on a daily basis," Kornahrens said.

Staff members are also having to step up and volunteer to run isolation rooms and clinics. Current nurses have had to work as late as midnight to contact parents concerning quarantined students. Some have also had to manage distributing daily medications while making these contact calls at the same time.

Pye said no one is exempt from this. He also said he wouldn't be surprised if he had to take over a class or two. 

"We got all hands on deck," he said. 

With bus drivers, DD2 has 16 vacancies with 20 to 25 drivers being absent on daily basis for various issues, including COVID.

Summerville High School has around 39 bus routes. Kornahrens said when the dismissal bell rang at the end of one of the school days, only five buses were present due to delays.

This all has resulted in students getting home as late as 6 p.m. in some cases.

"Those buses are getting there as quickly as they possibly can," Kornahrens said. 

At the Sept. 1 meeting, school board members also approved a new bell schedule to help address bus delays. Officials agreed that the high community spread of the virus isn't helping the situation.

They are also expecting the virtual break to give teachers and classrooms a chance to reset from quarantines. Parents present at the meeting disagreed and wanted to have a say in the decision.

One parent repeatedly screamed out for "Option D" when staff members gave board members three options for virtual breaks. Another had to be removed by law enforcement. 

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Reach Jerrel Floyd at 843-937-5558. Follow him on Twitter @jfloyd134.

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