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New data shows students can safely return to classrooms, teachers remain concerned

Updated: Jan. 31, 2021 at 6:21 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Fears and concerns over whether it’s safe for students to head back to the classroom have been at the forefront for teachers and parents this year.

However, new data has education and health experts in South Carolina saying that kids are safe in school.

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MUSC Infectious Disease Pediatrician Dr. Allison Eckard found during her research that about 1% of students and staff in Charleston County public schools tested positive for COVID-19 between the start of in-person learning in September and Winter Break in December.

“When you look at the tens of thousands of students and teachers in school, and the tiny percentage of positive cases we’ve had and the transmissions we’ve had in schools, it’s very compelling,” Dr. Eckard said.

Dr. Eckard said a team of school nurses that were trained by DHEC conducted contact tracing in Charleston County Schools and reporting the number of positive cases to Eckard.

“It really does look like with a multilayered approach that schools can open safely for students and teachers,” Dr. Eckard said.

Dr. Eckard also voiced concerns about other issues that are impacting kids during the pandemic, such as an increase in suicidal thoughts and gun violence, that suggest students should head back into the classroom.

A similar view was voiced by Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman during last week’s Senate Education Committee meeting.

“You’re better off to be at school than you are going to church, going to the grocery store, because it’s one of the few places you can make people wear masks, you can makes them social distance, you can clean the buildings, you can trace, and I hope we’re going to be able to give them a vaccine,” Spearman said during the meeting.

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However, SC for ED Research Director Steve Nuzum said the data from Eckard’s research doesn’t have him convinced.

“I feel like it’s just got the same limitation as every data set I’ve seen in South Carolina, which it’s always based on symptomatic voluntary testing,” Nuzum said.

Nuzum said he worries that many students are asymptomatic, and the data doesn’t capture the level of cases in schools.

“So there is in general always some amount of risk that asymptomatic people that have not been tested,” Eckard said. “But when you look at the number of mitigation strategies that CCSD has put into place, that really is the major reason why the numbers have stayed as low as they have.”

Nuzum said he would like the Department of Education to collect more data portraying symptomatic and asymptomatic cases in schools.

“If it really isn’t spreading in schools, I don’t see why we wouldn’t do that,” Nuzum said. “It would make everyone feel a lot better. People would probably be able to trust that information.”

Nuzum said another big concern for teachers is that not all districts are the same when it comes to the level of precautionary measures being taken to make sure that every student is wearing a mask at all times and social distancing. He said for the data to be representative, all districts need to be taking those measures.

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