DHEC relaxes COVID guidance for new school year, encourages more vaccinations

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Published: Aug. 15, 2022 at 6:16 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Thousands of South Carolina students are now back in the classroom or going back this week as they start another school year impacted by the pandemic.

But as they return, they will do so under relaxed statewide COVID-19 protocol, with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control updating its guidelines Monday in response to the CDC loosening up its guidance last week.

For the last few years, DHEC’s COVID guidance for schools has been detailed, like when and where masks should be worn, when masks needed to be worn, and how far apart students should sit in their classrooms.

“The big thing this school year is that we want to keep kids in school and healthy and happy. They all very much deserve to have a normal year,” DHEC Public Health Director Dr. Brannon Traxler said.

Students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms have to stay home and isolate for at least five days. They can return to school after that if their symptoms have improved and they have not had a fever for 24 hours, without the aid of fever-reducing medication.

They will have to wear a mask for the next five days, but they can take it off after that if they test negative on days 6 and 8 with rapid antigen tests.

If they don’t test negative on both those days, they will have to keep wearing a mask for another five days.

The change in guidance comes as South Carolina’s pediatric COVID vaccination rate has remained low for the last few months, with fewer than one in five 5-to-11-year-old children fully vaccinated at this point.

“I really encourage them to get vaccinated,” Traxler said. “It’s going to lower your chances of having to miss school, it’s going to lower your chances of having to miss more school, getting a severe case, and this really gives you the best shot of this being like a normal year.”

Students who are close contact of someone who tests positive, such as a friend, classmate, or teacher, are no longer required to quarantine if there is not an active outbreak at their school, so they should still keep going to school under those circumstances.

Outbreaks happen when 20% or more of the students and staff in a shared setting, like a classroom or sports team, are all diagnosed with or are absent because of COVID within a 72-hour span.

Schools are required to report outbreaks to DHEC, but this year, it’s up to districts to determine what happens next, like if they will start requiring masks or switch a class to virtual.

“We do provide some outbreak guidance, but again, that is really up to each school district to talk to their legal advisors and their administration and really make the best decisions about how to incorporate that guidance,” Traxler said.

As the new school year gets underway, more than half of South Carolina’s 46 counties are experiencing high community spread of the virus, according to the CDC.

In those areas, the CDC advises people wear a mask indoors in public or in crowded outdoor spaces, and DHEC also recommends they follow that guidance.

Dr. Traxler reminds families they should also be up to date on all of their children’s pediatric vaccines, not just the COVID shots, saying they don’t want students missing school for any reason that is preventable.

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