With students and teachers fast returning to school, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) is offering guidance and recommendations to keep campuses as safe as possible from COVID-19 while limiting disruptions caused by the spread of the virus.
COVID-19 has taken a toll in the classrooms over the past two years, forcing students to learn virtually, constantly be in and out of school due to cases and close contacts, and make other burdensome adjustments that affect learning.
In an effort to make the 2022-2023 school year safe and productive, DHEC has made some changes in guidance, and is encouraging everyone to take actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. DHEC also updated its guidance online in response to CDC’s Aug. 11 update.
DHEC’s updates include:
- Schools and childcare centers are encouraged to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) during non-outbreak periods.
- Parents are urged to vaccinate their children against COVID-19.
- DHEC will no longer require close contacts to quarantine during times when there are no active outbreaks, but those who are sick with COVID-19 or test positive must continue to isolate, meaning they must stay at home.
- Schools can take advantage of several options to test for COVID-19.
- Schools and childcare centers are urged to follow updated DHEC guidelines during outbreaks.
While DHEC will no longer require people who have come into close contact with someone who has COVID-19 to quarantine during non-outbreak periods, the agency is recommending that schools and childcare centers follow CDC guidance for quarantine, masking, vaccination, testing, etc. The CDC recommends quarantine for close contacts. Those who have COVID-19 or test positive still must stay at home, regardless of the severity of their symptoms.
According to the 2022-2023 School and Childcare Exclusion List, those who isolate can only return to school if:
- It has been at least five days since symptoms started and 24 hours since the last fever (without using fever-reducing meds.),
- Symptoms are significantly improving, and
- A mask must be worn days six to 10 unless the person tests negative on two rapid antigen tests performed on days six and eight, then they may remove the mask after the negative test on day eight.
- If either test on day six or eight is positive, the mask must be worn through day 10 and no further testing is recommended.
- If a mask is not worn as instructed above, a 10-day isolation must be observed.
The intent is to provide local school leaders reliable information as they balance educational priorities with student and teacher health and safety. “DHEC’s goal is to support schools in providing the safest and least restrictive learning environment possible while keeping everyone safe,” said Dr. Brannon Traxler, DHEC Public Health director. “We recognize that every community is different and may have different transmission levels of COVID-19, so it is important for districts to make the best decision for their individual schools.”
With COVID-19 cases having spiked over the summer, it is important to take steps to make sure that does not carry over into the school setting as students return. In addition to safety steps, such as hand washing and masking during periods of high community levels, DHEC is urging parents to get all eligible children vaccinated. With vaccines readily available for everyone 6 months old and up, there is no better time than now for all children to get their COVID-19 vaccination so they can remain in the best environment for learning – the classroom with little or no COVID-related disruptions.
Testing also remains a vital part of the effort to control COVID-19, and DHEC has various resources available to schools, including at-home tests, school-based tests, and vendor testing later in the fall.
While schools and childcare settings are encouraged to refer to CDC guidance during times when there are no outbreaks, DHEC Outbreak Guidance has been developed as a resource for school leaders during outbreaks. School districts should consult with their legal advisors to make the best decisions for their schools or districts if they have an outbreak. According to the guidance:
- It is considered an outbreak when 20 percent or more children plus staff in a shared setting – such as a classroom, childcare room, sports team with more than five people – are diagnosed with or absent/sent home due to COVID-19 within 72 hours of each other.
- Outbreaks are required to be reported to DHEC.
NOTE: Many people mistakenly refer to quarantine and isolation as if they are the same. They are not: Quarantine involves people who are close contacts but may not be infected; isolation involves people who are sick with or test positive for COVID-19.