After several cases of COVID-19 among students surfaced within one North Charleston classroom last month, some parents are calling on the school district for better communication and more transparency.
Under Charleston County School District protocol, parents will receive a notification about a COVID-19 case only 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.
But after seven students at Malcolm C. Hursey Montessori School tested positive for the virus over winter break, more than two dozen parents sent a collective letter asking school and district leaders to modify its notification policy for more widespread communication.
"The CCSD COVID-19 notification protocol needs editing," said Hursey parent Jillian Hollingsworth. "There needs to be a serious look at how this is negatively impacting families and very much increasing the spread within the school."
Hollingsworth and her three children tested positive for the virus on Dec. 17, just one day before students were dismissed for the holidays. She immediately began notifying other parents of the news via the school's PTA Facebook page.
Through her communication with other parents, Hollingsworth determined that at least five other children in her child's classroom tested positive for the virus. Four were asymptomatic, she said, including Toni Reale's son.
"The reason we’re asking for transparency is because if Jillian had not told me and other parents ... we would not have gotten tested, we would have not known to do that," Reale said.
As a result, Hollingsworth, Reale and two dozen other Hursey parents are calling on the district to update its policy. Anytime a student or teacher tests positive for the virus, everyone in the classroom should be made aware, Hollingsworth said, regardless of whether they are determined to be a close contact.
"We are stepping up and speaking out because we want to move forward in a safer way that could very likely save lives," Hollingsworth said. "We don’t need to know names, we just want to know that there was a case reported."
District contact tracers followed all guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control when investigating the positive cases at Hursey, said CCSD spokesman Andy Pruitt. As outlined under the district's protocol, all who were determined to be close contacts were notified, he said.
"We appreciate the parents' concerns and requests. However, in order to avoid potentially identifying anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19, we believe our notification process combined with the COVID-19 dashboard on our district website provides a balance of sensitivity and information," Pruitt said in a statement.
Several districts, including those in Greenville and Berkeley 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.
According to interim DHEC COVID-19 guidance for schools released in September, in spaces where social distancing could not be maintained, such as classrooms with young children who do not have assigned seating throughout the day, all children and staff "must be considered close contacts" and must complete a 14-day quarantine.
In Montessori classrooms such as Hursey, there are often no desks or assigned seats.
But at least one Hursey parent whose child shared a classroom with a COVID-19 positive student received no notification from the district.
Blair Scott's son shares a classroom with Hollingsworth's daughter, who tested positive on Dec. 17. Scott said she was never informed about the situation by the district, and the only reason her family knew to get tested was because Hollingsworth reached out.
Scott, her husband and her son ultimately all tested positive for the virus.
"I feel kind of blindsided," Scott said.
She initially believed that she would be notified anytime someone in her child's class tested positive. It was only after her recent COVID-19 experience did she realize otherwise.
"It's our right to know, and it's our right to decide what we do with this information," Scott said. "It’s essential that the policy is changed."
Scott and other Hursey parents said they didn't blame school staff for the way cases were handled and that they were thankful that their students have the opportunity to learn in person. Instead, Scott said, she wanted to speak up in order for the district to create a safer learning environment for all students.
In the days since Hollingsworth's children tested positive, she and other Hursey parents have started sharing information via a separate Facebook group regarding the virus activity at the school and how to get tested.
"It was the only way that we were going to be able to communicate," Reale said.
Hollingsworth and other parents first tried pleading their case to Hursey Principal Timothy Schavel. After learning that all schools must adhere to the district's protocol, they have since focused their attention on Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait and members of the Charleston County School Board.
Board member Cindy Bohn Coats, whose North Charleston district encompasses Hursey Montessori, said she'd heard from parents and plans to bring up the issue during Monday's board meeting.
"I think it's a valid question to be asked and it needs to be a real conversation that is had," Coats said.
Coats said she needed clarification from the district on what is allowable under federal and state privacy laws.
Vice Chairwoman Courtney Waters agreed.
"We really care about the kids and want to give them that transparency but sometimes the law gets in the way," Waters said.
Waters said she would support measures to increase COVID-19 communication with families as long as the extra workload doesn't overwhelm principals and the new measures don't interfere with federal privacy laws.
"It’s no secret to everyone that people need and want more transparency, and I'm fully in support of that," she said. "When you’re sending your kid somewhere you want to know for certain that they're going into a place that's safe."