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Horry County Schools superintendent answers top COVID-19 questions in video

Horry County Schools Superintendent Dr. Rick Maxey released a video addressing the top...
Horry County Schools Superintendent Dr. Rick Maxey released a video addressing the top questions parents and teachers have about COVID-19 in schools.(Source: HCS)
Published: Sep. 7, 2021 at 7:04 PM EDT
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HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) – The Horry County Schools superintendent released a video on Tuesday afternoon, addressing COVID-19 concerns in the district.

In the video, Superintendent Dr. Rick Maxey answered three recurring questions that the district has been receiving from parents and employees who are concerned about the virus in the schools.

The three top questions are:

  1. Why can’t the school board or the school district issue a mask mandate? Around the state, other local governments and school districts have done so.
  2. Why did Horry County Schools install plexiglass in school classrooms and then remove the plexiglass over the summer?
  3. Why doesn’t Horry County Schools use the hybrid schedule like it did last year in order to address the rising number of positive COVID-19 cases in our schools? It was not a perfect schedule, but it could help cut down on the number of students in a school building at one time.

In the answer to the first question, Maxey states that the Horry County Board of Education can’t legally issue a mask mandate in classrooms because it would be a violation of state law Proviso 1.108 which states that school districts can’t use any state funds to implement a mask mandate.

Maxey explained that since public school employees are paid using a portion of state funds, the proviso bans public school employees from being legally able to announce, enforce or require students or employees to wear a face mask.

Many parents and staff have pointed out that other school districts have implemented mask mandates, but Maxey said that HCS receives $247 million from the state and the district simply can’t afford to lose that state funding.

On the plexiglass issue, Maxey explained that the plexiglass barriers were put in after the CDC endorsed them as a means to have in-person instruction. But in March 2021, the CDC rescinded its recommendation that barriers in classrooms reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“Consequently, Horry County Schools removed all plexiglass barriers from district classrooms over the summer and focused its efforts on installing bipolar ionization units in our schools in order to enhance indoor air quality to combat the virus,” Maxey said in the video.

When it comes to implementing a hybrid schedule, Maxey once again said that it would be a violation of state law if HCS enacted a hybrid schedule.

The S.C. General Assembly passed a joint resolution and the governor signed into law in April 2021 that every school district in the state must offer five-day, in-person classroom instructions.

“At this point, I hope that it is clear that locally, our school district and board of education are limited in what we can do to address the spread of COVID-19 in our schools due to specific state laws that restrict us from actions that we may have taken on a local level in the past,” Maxey said in the video.

WMBF News made a request to Horry County Schools last week, asking for a one-on-one interview with Maxey to talk to him about COVID-19 issues in the district. We still have yet to hear back from the district and an interview has not been set up.


Below is the full transcript from Maxey’s video statement:

Hello,

I hope this message finds you and your family healthy and well.

I would like to take a few minutes to share with you information which I believe you will find useful in understanding the current Horry County Schools (HCS) response to COVID-19 in our schools. As you know, discussions of COVID-19 topics tend to be complicated, so this video is much longer than the typical ones we share with our stakeholders. However, I want to address three recurring questions we receive from parents and employees concerning COVID-19 and our schools. In doing so, I also want to make you aware of two relatively new state laws with which we must contend. To make this information more accessible to our public, a transcript of this video is posted below along with links to relevant S.C. laws and/or documents. So let’s get started.

Last year, during the 2020-21 academic year, the primary strategies used to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our schools included the following:

  • Students and employees were required to wear face masks,
  • Plexiglass was used because at the time CDC/DHEC believed that physical barriers could help stop the transmission of the virus, and
  • The hybrid schedule was used to reduce by approximately half the number of students attending school and riding a school bus on a given day.

Now, let’s fast-forward to the 2021-22 school year which we started a few weeks ago on August 17th. Just this past Friday, September 3rd, we reported on the HCS COVID-19 Case Dashboard that currently 1,190 individuals (1,092 students and 98 employees) have confirmed positive COVID-19 test results; 305 employees are quarantined; and 12.4 thousand students are quarantined. These numbers are alarming because as we finish our third week of school, HCS already has reached 46% of last year’s total number of COVID-19 confirmed positives of 2,587 for both students and employees.

Many parents have written to board members, district staff members, and me asking why we are not doing some of the same things we did last year that seemed to be effective in combating the spread of the virus. We would like to do so, but due to changes in state laws, we cannot use the same strategies as last year. As I answer three of the most common questions we receive, I will also share with you the major obstacles that we and other public school districts face in the 2021-22 school year.

  • Why can’t the school board or the school district issue a mask mandate? Around the state, other local governments and school districts have done so.

To put it simply, neither our school district nor the Horry County Board of Education can legally issue a face mask mandate because it would be a violation of state law Proviso 1.108 which became effective July 1, 2021. This law states the following:

1.108. (SDE: Mask Mandate Prohibition)  No school district, or any of its schools, may use any funds appropriated or authorized pursuant to this act to require that its students and/or employees wear a facemask at any of its education facilities. This prohibition extends to the announcement or enforcement of any such policy.

What does this mean? It means that since public school employees are paid using a portion of state funds, Proviso 1.108 prohibits public school employees from being legally able to announce, enforce, or require public school students or employees to wear a mask.

You may say, “Some school districts are ignoring this law and requiring students and employees to wear face masks, why don’t you?

The answer to this question actually has two parts.

First, this past school year, our school district received approximately $247 million in state dollars to help fund the operation of schools within Horry County. If Horry County Schools were denied these state funds for violating Proviso 1.108, we have to ask ourselves, “Where will we get nearly a quarter of a billion dollars locally to operate our public schools for the 2021-22 school year?”

Second, some local governments within South Carolina have indeed decided to issue mask mandates in opposition to this state law. However, it is important to know this.The S.C. Attorney General just recently brought a lawsuit on this issue before the S.C. Supreme Court. So what happened? Last Thursday, September 2, 2021, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that the City of Columbia’s face mask ordinance requiring students and employees to wear face masks in K-12 public schools within the Columbia city limits, violated S.C. law, Proviso 1.108.

The S.C. Supreme Court stated the “supreme legislative power” resides with the South Carolina General Assembly, not a local government. The Court declared the City’s mask ordinance as it relates to K-12 public schools void and stated, “Accordingly, we uphold Proviso 1.108 and declare void the challenged ordinances of the City insofar as they purport to impose a mask mandate in K-12 public schools.”

Therefore, the S.C. Supreme Court made it clear that the authority to require masks in K-12 public schools rests in the hands of the South Carolina General Assembly. Given this S.C. Supreme Court ruling, we do not think it is logical, advisable, or more important, even legal  for the school district’s administration or the Horry County Board of Education to enact a face mask mandate in our schools. A second ruling by the S.C. Supreme Court on a similar case is forthcoming in the near future.

  • Why did Horry County Schools install plexiglass in school classrooms and then remove the plexiglass over the summer?

In October 2020, the SCDE informed Horry County Schools and other S.C. K-12 public school districts that the SCDE would be providing funding for plexiglass that could be used in the classroom in order to separate students and allow districts to move away from the hybrid schedule. At the time, the CDC endorsed the use of physical barriers as a means to have in-person instruction for more students. Horry County Schools and other school districts across South Carolina utilized this plexiglass resource to get all of our students back to in-person instruction for five days per week by the springtime. However, in March 2021, CDC rescinded its recommendation that physical barriers be used in school classrooms to reduce the spread of COVID-19 because new scientific information indicated that the virus could be transmitted as an aerosol, thus making the physical barriers in the classrooms ineffective. Consequently, Horry County Schools removed all plexiglass barriers from district classrooms over the summer and focused its efforts on installing bipolar ionization units in our schools in order to enhance indoor air quality to combat the virus.

  • Why doesn’t Horry County Schools use the hybrid schedule like it did last year in order to address the rising number of positive COVID-19 cases in our schools? It was not a perfect schedule, but it could help cut down on the number of students in a school building at one time.

We agree that the hybrid schedule could be a way of helping reduce the spread of COVID-19 within our schools. With approximately half the number of students attending school and riding our school buses, it would seem logical that the hybrid schedule would help lower the transmission rate of the virus. So, why doesn’t the district use the hybrid schedule this school year? Again, because South Carolina law prevents the district from doing so.

By a joint resolution, on April 21, 2021, the S.C. General Assembly passed bill S704, and the Governor signed it into law on April 23, 2021.  S704, which is titled, “Five-day, in-person classroom instruction mandate,” states the following:

SECTION  1. For the 2020-2021 School Year, every school district in the State must offer five-day, in-person classroom instruction to students no later than April 26, 2021. For the 2021-2022 School Year, every school district in the State must offer five-day, in-person classroom instruction to students.

After consulting with a state lawmaker, HCS has been advised that using the hybrid schedule this year would be a violation of this state law that was enacted in April 2021. Therefore, HCS cannot use the hybrid schedule this year because it, too, would be a violation of state law.

The SCDE has given public K-12 school districts the ability to employ distance learning on a temporary basis due to COVID-19 issues. However, in the document that districts submit to the SCDE for this purpose, it states, “The decision making should be handled on a school by school basis rather than district wide unless the staffing shortages exist district wide and district wide closure is recommended by public health officials. The school or district must move back to face to face instruction as soon as staff becomes available.”

As you know, Horry County Schools has been moving some schools---on a school-by-school basis--- to temporary distance learning as a result of COVID-19 impacts on staff and students. In each instance, before moving a school to temporary distance learning, HCS consulted with SCDHEC and the SCDE. Thus far, public health officials have at no time recommended that HCS go district-wide with temporary distance learning for all schools in the county.

At this point, I hope that it is clear that locally, our school district and board of education are limited in what we can do to address the spread of COVID-19 in our schools due to specific state laws that restrict us from actions that we may have taken on a local level in the past. Obviously, we will continue to encourage employees and students to wear face covering while inside our school buildings. And while the vaccine is a personal choice for everyone, we will continue to work with our medical partners to make vaccination opportunities available to our school communities. We will adhere to the SCDE’s requirement that children riding buses must wear face coverings. We will also continue the basic hygienic steps which we have laid out in our district’s “Safe Return to In-person Instruction and Continuity of Services Plan.” Furthermore, we will continue to work with SCDHEC and the SCDE and comply with their directions concerning any additional COVID-19 issues that develop in the schools within our district.

……………………..

In addition to answering the three most common questions board members and district staff receive, I would like to take this opportunity to address Friday’s announcement concerning the reduction in the number of quarantine days for student and employee close contacts of an individual who has received a confirmed positive COVID-19 test result.

Since we are so limited by state laws as to what we can do locally to support our students, we decided to take action with what we can do by getting healthy students back in school for face-to-face instruction as soon as possible. Therefore, as announced on Friday, HCS  will be shortening the duration of quarantines of both students and employees from 14 days to 10 days in accordance with SCDHEC and CDC guidelines.

We all know that students benefit from being in school, and we all know that our students, like students around the country, have suffered from both emotional and mental health issues as a result of being out of school during the pandemic. We hope that shortening the duration of quarantine will have a positive effect on our students. Granted, we may face more quarantines, but by exercising this SCDHEC and CDC-approved option, we can reduce the amount of time that our students are physically out of school. For information concerning the change of quarantine durations, please check the link which is listed in the transcript posted below.

See https://www.horrycountyschools.net/Page/16459.

As for communications with our stakeholders, I want to emphasize to you that changes in information or procedures that affect students will be shared with parents via ParentLink email. If you do not receive a notification, that means circumstances have not changed.

Parents who have specific questions concerning COVID-19 topics should send those questions to COVID19info@horrycountyschools.net. HCS employees will receive notifications of changes in information or procedures via their employee email from HCSInfo. And, don’t forget that we have a page on the HCS website that is dedicated to COVID-19 information.  This website location is also listed in the transcript posted below.

See https://www.horrycountyschools.net/Page/16620.

In closing, I want you to know that HCS and the Horry County Board of Education are doing all that we can to address COVID-19 issues in our schools to the extent that new state laws allow us to do so. If you want to effect change in the current state laws, I want to emphasize that your desire for change in these laws is beyond the scope and authority of both the school district and the Horry County Board of Education. Your many emails and phone calls to us are not falling on deaf ears; we just do not have the local control to do anything about it.

As the S.C. Supreme Court noted in its recent decision voiding the City of Columbia’s mask mandate as it related to K-12 public schools within the City’s borders, that authority is not with local government. It rests in the hands of the State Representatives and State Senators who make up the S.C. General Assembly. You need to be speaking to them to let them hear your concerns.

Thank you for your kind attention. I hope you find this information helpful.

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