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SC Health Dept. recommends face masks, vaccinations for fall school year

State education superintendent releases statement on recommendations
Published: Jul. 29, 2021 at 4:20 AM EDT|Updated: Jul. 29, 2021 at 8:13 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Parents and students who hoped the new school year would not involve wearing face coverings may be disappointed if new guidance from the state health department is put into place.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control released its recommendations for COVID-19 protocols in the classroom for the 2021-2022 school year Thursday morning.

In those recommendations, DHEC “strongly recommends mask use for all people when indoors in school settings, especially when physical distancing is not possible.” Children under the age of 2, anyone with breathing difficulties or anyone unable to remove face coverings without assistance should not wear a face covering, the guidance states.

“DHEC recognizes mask use cannot be mandated per the SC General Assembly but is providing the following guidance for teachers, staff and parents,” the guidance states.

The agency is also strongly encouraging school districts to work with area health officials and healthcare facilities and professionals to provide factual information and education about the COVID-19 vaccines and to increase access to them for staff, students and families who want to be vaccinated.

“Our first priority is the safety of our children and teachers,” DHEC Director Dr. Edward Simmer said. “That is why, above all else, we’re urging all eligible South Carolinians to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated if they haven’t already done so.”

The recommendations also stipulate at least three feet of distance between each student should be maintained “to the greatest extent possible.”

“Case investigation and contact tracing are critical strategies to identify and isolate cases and test and quarantine close contacts to reduce transmission,” the guidance states.

“The last thing we want is for COVID-19 to spread through our schools causing avoidable illness,” Simmer said. “Our students and educators deserve the right to learn and teach in a safe, healthy environment, and vaccinations will make that possible. The use of masks and other precautions recommended in our guidance will also help ensure a safe, healthy environment in our schools especially with the emergence of the Delta variant.”

The agency reported nearly 19,000 COVID-19 cases among students and faculty through June 18.

“Vaccinations are the best way to not continue to see cases in schools and to end the pandemic,” the guidance states.

DHEC says mask use remains a requirement on school buses and other public transportation because of a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Order regardless of the mask policy at school or the individual’s vaccination status. DHEC’s recommendations state school systems should take appropriate steps to ensure compliance with this requirement by students, staff, and others.

South Carolina Education Superintendent Molly Spearman released this statement on the DHEC guidance Thursday morning:

DHEC has been a tremendous partner for our agency and continues to provide sound public health advice for our students, families, and educators as we navigate the ever evolving COVID-19 pandemic. All members of our state’s education system should familiarize themselves with this latest guidance and schools and districts should implement the appropriate prevention strategies.

As noted in the guidance, vaccines remain the most effective tool we have to combat the virus and can ensure our school communities have the safest, most normal, uninterrupted school year possible. I encourage families of vaccine-eligible students to speak with their pediatrician and strongly consider the personal protections and public health benefits of vaccination.

DHEC’s new guidance comes the day after state health officials reported almost 1,400 new COVID-19 cases and a percent-positive test rate of more than 17%.

Vaccines are available for everyone in South Carolina age 12 and older.

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