By Mike McCombs
Uncertainty. Apprehension. Nervousness.
For parents and students, alike, these can be common emotions as the beginning of a new school year draws near. But this year, they are for all the wrong reasons.
With the delta variant and a low vaccination rate helping COVID numbers to spike, it could be a risky time for students to return to in-person learning. Gov. Henry McMaster’s efforts to prohibit any mask mandates for the state’s public schools only exacerbates the risk.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and S.C. DHEC recommend vaccinations and masks for children returning to an in-person school setting.
“Getting eligible children vaccinated is a top public health priority as we start a new school year,” said S.C. DHEC Director Dr. Edward Simmer said last week. “The COVID delta variant we’re tracking now is highly contagious, and the best way to prevent your child or a loved one from getting sick or requiring hospitalization is by being fully vaccinated and wearing a mask indoors when at school.”
Beaufort County School District (BCSD) published its 2021-2022 Reopening Plan in June and added a Frequently Asked Questions page a few days ago. Both can be found at https://bit.ly/3iDpL8S.
But what can’t be found in either of those documents is any sort of safe option for kids younger than 12 who are returning to school.
Until there is a vaccine approved for children younger than 12, vaccination isn’t an option. And mandating masks has been made illegal.
With virtual schooling options far fewer this year, that’s forcing parents into a situation where they have no real option but to send their unvaccinated children into a risky situation.
Beaufort County School District Superintendent Frank Rodriguez has heard the complaints. While acknowledging the limitations the school district is forced to deal with, he emphasizes that the BCSD is trying to be proactive.
“I think what I would say is I understand everyone’s concerns,” Rodriguez said by phone on Tuesday. “Don’t forget I’m a parent, also, with two children in school. I think one of the things that is important to just get some of the technical components out of the way.
“Proviso 1.108 doesn’t allow us to mandate masks in school. We have to abide by it. It’s the law. But it is silent about buses, so we are mandating masks on buses. It is silent about visitors, so we’re mandating all visitors wear masks. The same goes for health care areas and athletic training areas.”
Essentially, BCSD is requiring masks anywhere they can.
Rodriguez added that schools are not allowed to have more than 5 percent of students enrolled in virtual instruction.
“That doesn’t allow parents to go virtual because you simply can’t offer it,” Rodriguez said.
Another rule forces the school district to offer five days a week of instruction, not allowing for any sort of staggered schedule.
But Rodriguez said, if parents want them to, their students can wear masks voluntarily, and he hopes many will. He says the schools will be making an effort to enforce social distancing, and there will be plexiglass barriers available in classrooms.
He said an additional strategy will be the use of DHEC-recommended quarantines for students exposed to the virus. Vaccinated students will quarantine 10 days, while unvaccinated students must quarantine 14 days.
“We have to follow and operate within the law,” Rodriguez said, “so that’s what we’re doing. Our goal is to keep our students and our staff as safe as possible and to keep our schools open for kids.”
Rodriguez said superintendents across the state had made their concerns known, but the situation was one they didn’t control.
When asked what would have to happen for the current situation to change, Rodriguez couldn’t answer.
“I think that’s not a question for Frank Rodriguez, that’s a question for somebody else,” he said. “My job is to operate the schools and try to keep kids safe within the provisos.”
When asked if he would require students to wear masks if it were legally possible, Rodriguez paused, choosing his words carefully.
“Last year, we operated with mask requirements for almost the whole year,” he said. “It was one of our mitigation strategies. I think that’s what I would say.”
At the private schools
Beaufort Academy started school Wednesday. The school is recommending masks, but not requiring them, according to Beaufort Academy Director of Communications and Marketing Lisa Gallagher.
Gallagher said the school would be paying close attention in case it needed to make any alterations to its plan.
“Some teachers are requesting (masks), and that’s OK. We’re asking those students to wear masks,” Gallagher said. “And the families seem to be OK with it. Also, if there are families that want to wear masks, they are more than welcome to.”
BA, at the beginning of this school year, hopes to replicate what it did last year with an ambitious and detailed back-to-school plan that utilized masks, social distancing, sterilization and the utilization of the school’s unique building structure and outdoor spaces to keep students and faculty safe.
John Paul II Catholic School is recommending but not requiring masks be worn in indoor spaces. The school is requiring masks for mass.
Otherwise, JPII, much like Beaufort County Schools, is following S.C. DHEC’s guidelines on testing and quarantines for students who are exposed to the virus. The quarantines vary based on whether or not the students are vaccinated.
Above: Port Royal Elementary School is ready for maskless, full-time, in person classroom teaching. The first day of school in Beaufort County will be Monday, Aug. 16. Photo by Bob Sofaly.
Mike McCombs is editor of The Island News. He can be reached at email@example.com