Eighty-seven Beaufort County School District staff and 1,011 students are quarantining as a result of exposure to COVID-19, Superintendent Frank Rodriguez said at Tuesday night’s school board meeting.
That total represents about 4.6% of the district’s combined population of approximately 2,000 employees and 22,000 students.
The district reported 75 COVID-19 cases last week, Rodriguez said, a decrease from the previous week’s total of 123. So far, 15 cases have been reported this week.
Since Sept. 28, the district has reported 663 COVID-19 infections among students and staff, a number that has nearly doubled since students returned from winter break on Jan. 4. The district’s last COVID-19 dashboard update was early Wednesday morning.
About 2.76% of the district’s total student and staff population have contracted the virus since Sept. 28, compared to 6.15% of the county’s total population since March. May River High has reported a total of 98 COVID-19 cases, the highest in the district, followed by Bluffton High with 66 and Hilton Head Island High with 52.
Among those quarantining are 17 people at Whale Branch Elementary and Middle School, following a close contact not associated with either school one week before they began their quarantine.
Despite the daunting numbers, district officials and school board members were optimistic about the news of quarantines Tuesday.
“If you have 1,000 people in quarantine, it sounds dramatic and it sounds scary,” Hilton Head board rep Ingrid Boatright said. “What it tells me is that we’re doing good contact tracing, we’re removing risks from the community, we’re isolating cases, and this is a positive of having kids back in school.”
Rodriguez, who quarantined in December after performing emergency CPR, said decisions to close classrooms or schools due to COVID-19 infections would require input from South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control.
In schools with extensive quarantines, he said shutdowns would come down to “the inability to operate because we have too many staff out there.”
The district’s substitute teacher pool has shrunk dramatically during the pandemic, making it difficult for schools to hire substitutes for absences both quarantine- and non quarantine-related. District spokesperson Candace Bruder said last week that the district’s substitute contractor ESS has 356 substitutes available this year compared to 480 at this time last year.
Rodriguez said the solution is asking school and district staff to cover these classrooms.
Allison Eckard, division director for pediatric infectious diseases at Charleston’s Medical University of South Carolina, presented data on school disease transmission to the board.
Eckard used data from Sept. 7 to Dec. 20 in Charleston and Beaufort County School Districts. She said that since Charleston County students returned to full-time instruction on Sept. 8:
0.9% of in-person students and 3.7% of in-person staff had contracted COVID-19 for a total of 472 cases; Six instances of probable transmission from teachers to students and staff had been identified;“Several clusters” of student-to-student transmission and transmission due to basketball teams had been identified; Most cases were “linked to sources outside school.”
The presentation did not include data following winter break, where Beaufort County has seen student and staff cases nearly double.
“If bars can stay open, schools can stay open,” Eckard said, pointing to decreased school performance and increases in suicidal behavior, gun violence and the percentage of child abuse and neglect cases requiring hospitalization during the pandemic as reasons to continue in-person learning.
She added that contact sports, choir, band — and a failure to recognize mild symptoms and high-risk activities outside of school — are the biggest risks for COVID-19 transmission during in-person instruction.
“I have scoured the data for days on end and feel very good that the kids and staff and teachers are safe in school,” she said.
“Is it 100% safe? No, of course not, that’s hard to say anywhere. But they do seem to have a lower case rate and rate of transmission inside the schools than outside of the schools.”
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Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. She has won awards from the South Carolina Press Association, Associated College Press and North Carolina College Media Association for feature writing and education reporting.