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Charleston school leaders plan for vaccine, consider altering COVID-19 notification policy

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District leaders will meet with school principals Tuesday morning to discuss the feasibility of updating the process currently used to alert parents of COVID-19 cases in their child's classroom, Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait announced Monday. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

In the wake of parent and community outcry, Charleston County school officials are working this week to make changes to the district's COVID-19 notification protocol. 

District officials are also partnering with the Medical University of South Carolina to finalize plans for providing coronavirus vaccines for all eligible staff when available, Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait announced Monday.

Postlewait and other district staff will meet with school principals Tuesday morning to discuss the feasibility of updating the process currently used to alert parents of COVID-19 cases in their child's classroom. 

Under CCSD’s existing policy, parents are only contacted if their child is deemed to be a "close contact" of a coronavirus-positive individual. As defined by the state health agency, this includes anyone who has been within 6 feet of a positive case for 15 minutes or longer.

That means Charleston parents often don't find out about positive cases in their child's classrooms from the district. Instead, families have turned to word-of-mouth communication and social media to share information about the virus. 

"We are working now to try and determine how and under what circumstances we can notify parents when there are positive cases in a classroom, even one positive case," Postlewait said. 

Still, she said, modifying the protocol won't be easy. 

"It will be very difficult to do this at the middle and high school level since they change classes every period," Postlewait said. 

As a result, the district is focusing its efforts at the elementary school level. 

Postlewait's announcement at Monday's Committee of the Whole meeting came after an online petition garnered more than 700 signatures over the weekend.

North Charleston parent Toni Reale said she helped create the petition after five students in her son’s classroom at Malcolm C. Hursey Montessori tested positive for COVID-19. At least one Hursey parent whose child shared a classroom with a COVID-19 positive student received no notification from the district and later tested positive for the virus.

Reale and other parents emailed school board members in advance of the meeting asking them to modify the policy so that every time a student or teacher tests positive for the virus, parents are informed. 

"It’s very clear that the current definition of close contact falls dangerously short of reality," Reale said.

A district spokesman previously cited student privacy concerns as one of the reasons schools were not tasked with notifying parents of so-called "classroom contacts."

According to federal coronavirus guidelines, districts may disclose this information as long as it does not allow for any individual student to be identified, Postlewait said.

But several other school districts, including those in Berkeley and Greenville counties, have opted to inform all students who shared a classroom space with a COVID-19 positive person in addition to the established close contacts.

"I did talk to districts across the state and when I tell them that we don't do classroom notification, they look at me like I have two heads," said board member Cindy Bohn Coats. 

Coats pressed the superintendent to nail down specifics regarding when and how the new notification protocol will be implemented. 

But Postlewait said additional details aren't available yet. 

"Until we talk to principals, it's difficult to know exactly what will work," she said. 

Postlewait added that she "upset teachers terribly" when the district unexpectedly announced last week that parents could temporarily keep their students home following the winter holiday as a COVID-19 precautionary measure. 

"We're going to make a professional courtesy of getting their input, and then we will absolutely create a written statement about what we're going to do," Postlewait said. 

Jeff Borowy, the district's chief operating officer, informed board members that CCSD has partnered with MUSC to iron out the logistics for distributing the COVID-19 vaccine to teachers and other school staff once it becomes available.

Teachers who come into direct contact with students are eligible under Phase 1B of the state's vaccine rollout plan. The district plans to distribute vaccines that are "free of charge and voluntary" for eligible staff, Borowy said. 

Right now, the district is considering distributing vaccines at four possible sites: Stall, Burke, Wando and West Ashley high schools.

The district already had a framework for a mass vaccination plan in place, Borowy said, which has helped speed up the process. 

"CCSD will be ready whenever a vaccine is available," Postlewait said. 

The district has reported 792 cases associated with CCSD schools since September, according to its COVID-19 dashboard. Of those, more than 180 were reported last week, and 159 were reported over winter break.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correctly reflect the number of cases reported to the district's dashboard last week. 

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif.

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