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SC schools have wide flexibility to determine how they inform parents of COVID-19 cases

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When it comes to the coronavirus, delays in reporting, vague data and wide discrepancies in communication from district to district has sparked confusion and frustration for some parents. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

It’s been just over two months since South Carolina schools first reopened their doors during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

At the request of Gov. Henry McMaster, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control updates an online dashboard twice a week that details the number of coronavirus cases associated with students, faculty and staff who were contagious while at school.

The dashboard was designed to keep parents and teachers informed of how the virus is impacting their communities.

But delays in reporting, vague data and wide discrepancies in communication from district to district have sparked confusion and frustration for some parents who say they need more transparency.

Depending on where a student lives or what school they go to, parents might not find out directly if there’s been a positive case. In some instances, they might not find out even if there was a confirmed case in their child’s classroom.

That's because school districts have wide flexibility to determine how they let parents know about COVID-19 infections. At minimum, they're responsible for informing “close contacts” of coronavirus positive individuals that had been exposed at school.

As defined by the state health agency, close contacts include anyone who has been within 6 feet of a positive case for 15 minutes or longer. Close contacts are recommended to stay home and self-quarantine for at least 14 days, per DHEC guidelines.

Some districts, such as those in Greenville and Berkeley counties, opt to inform all students who shared a classroom space with a COVID-19 positive person in addition to the established close contacts. Others have gone so far as to inform the entire school district population each time there’s a COVID-19 exposure.

In Jasper County, the school district's communication office sends out an email to members of the media every time a student or teacher tests positive. 

Much of how a district decides to inform parents depends on its total size and student enrollment, said Ryan Brown, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Education.

It's much easier for smaller school districts to disseminate this type of information, Brown said. 

“If their parents want to know things, there’s no reason to hide that information,” he said. “But you do want to avoid sending people into a panic or a frenzy because positive cases are happening throughout the state, and they’re going to continue to happen.”

Community confusion

In Charleston County, parents will receive a notification only if their child is deemed a close contact.

Even if a parent called the district office or a school directly to find out if their child had been in a classroom with one of the positive individuals, they wouldn’t have much luck.

“We are not providing classroom-specific information (to those who are not close contacts) in large part to protect the privacy of those who tested positive,” district spokesman Andy Pruitt said.

The district updates its own COVID-19 dashboard at the end of every weekday. The website lists the daily tally of cases broken down by school, as well as the previous week’s case count and the total number of cases each school has reported since the first day of school, Sept. 8.

The district’s site is updated more than twice as often as DHEC’s bi-weekly COVID-19 reports, Pruitt said.

Still, some parents and community members have pointed out that data published online isn’t always accurate or timely.

Last week, rumors of a potential outbreak at Baptist Hill Middle High School made waves in the tight-knit Hollywood community.

Several community leaders, including constituent board member Helen Davis Frazier, said they were able to confirm by word of mouth that the number of teachers and administrators out sick with the virus was more than what was documented on the district’s dashboard.

“It’s just a lack of reporting,” Frazier said. “I don’t understand why we’re trying to push this under the rug. I don’t know if it’s the fact to cover up that we do have an outbreak or we just don’t want people to know that we have an issue at the school.”

Frazier visited the school herself to find out what was going on. On the day she stopped by, Frazier said five administrators and seven teachers were absent.

“We have a right to be suspicious. We have a right to be fearful," she said. "Because we’re just not informed of what’s going on. And I can’t understand why not.”

Marsha Aleem, a Charleston County parent and community advocate, said she also was frustrated by the discrepancy.

“There didn’t seem to be accuracy in reporting based on what members of the community knew,” Aleem said.

Complicating things further, some of the district’s data has contradicted itself in the past.

On Thursday, the district's dashboard reported that two individuals tested positive at Baptist Hill last week. But it also listed that school’s total number of cases since Sept. 8 was just one individual.

Similar data inconsistencies were reported at two other CCSD schools: East Cooper Center for Advanced Studies and the Mary Ford Early Learning Center.

Pruitt acknowledged the error and said it was the result of last week's data not carrying over the yearly total like it's supposed to. Baptist Hill has had three total cases, he said, and the district updated the dashboard several minutes after the error was identified. 

"We’re still working through it, it’s still a work in progress," he said. "But we are providing regular updates that are helpful to our school community."

As soon as schools are made aware of a positive COVID-19 case, contact tracing begins, Pruitt said. At the end of each business day, new cases are added to the district’s dashboard. There might be a slight delay if a case is reported after-hours or on weekends, he said.

Cases reported on Saturday will be added to the previous week’s Friday total. Cases reported on Sunday will be added to the dashboard on Monday.

If parents notice errors in the data or are confused about case counts, Pruitt said, they should contact the district office. 

As of Thursday, the district had reported 101 cases since Sept. 8 across 49 schools

Back-to-school concerns

Word travels fast on Daniel Island.

The riverfront community nestled between Mount Pleasant and Charleston’s downtown peninsula is home to several schools within the Berkeley County School District, which reopened classrooms in early September for five-days of in-person instruction for all students who desired it.

Chris Brown, who opted to enroll his three elementary school-age sons in the district’s online-only learning program at the start of the year, was gearing up to send his kids back to school in person for the second quarter of the academic year when he got wind that several teachers at Daniel Island School had tested positive for the coronavirus.

He did some digging and eventually found the cases listed on DHEC’s website.

The district also updates its own dashboard with a 14-day rolling count of COVID-19 cases among students and staff, broken down by school.

Still, Brown said, it’s concerning that all parents at the school aren’t notified directly when new positive cases are reported.

After all, he receives plenty of communication every week from school administrators about everything from picture day to spirit week.

“I don’t expect every kid to wear their mask and every kid to stay 6 feet apart and for every teacher to be perfect. I just want to be able to have the information from the school if there’s a spike,” Brown said. “I’m not getting that information. All I'm getting is a number on a website. And that’s their version of transparency.”

Through his conversations with other parents in the Daniel Island community, Brown said there are at least three other cases among students at Daniel Island School that have not yet shown up on the district’s dashboard.

He started an online petition asking the school to notify all parents of any coronavirus cases at the school within eight hours of discovery. The petition also asks that the school inform parents about what measures it is taking to disinfect and sanitize the building.

“It feels really uncomfortable when we know that we have an administration that seems like they want to escape the facts and they just want to put up the bare minimum,” he said.

District spokeswoman Katie Tanner said schools do not individually send out COVID-19 notification alerts to all parents directly because the most accurate, up-to-date information is listed on the district’s dashboard.

“From an informational management standpoint, this is the best practice,” Tanner said. “This is being managed at the top level who has the immediate contact with DHEC and is being managed in a way that gives parents immediate updates every day with the exact number of cases.”

The district revamped its website two weeks ago to provide daily coronavirus tallies instead of DHEC’s twice-weekly report.

“We’re showing our community transparent, accurate data rather than waiting for any lags,” she said.

Unlike Charleston County, students in Berkeley County schools will be notified every time a student or teacher in their class tests positive, Tanner said.

These so-called “classroom contacts” are notified in addition to the confirmed individuals deemed close contacts, Tanner said.

As of Thursday, Berkeley County School District has reported a total of 23 student cases and 11 staff cases over the past 14 days, according to its COVID-19 dashboard.

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

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