Now that schools have been opened in a variety of ways in South Carolina and across the country, we are learning more about the risk of COVID-19 in a school setting. In South Carolina, as expected, we have found cases in students and staff. Fortunately, we haven’t identified any clusters indicating ongoing transmission in schools.
While there is still much to learn, evidence so far suggests preventive measures in schools are universally more consistent than those in the surrounding communities. Students are at greater risk in communities with high disease rates.
Many of the cases now found in students and staff are a result of COVID-19 spreading in the community. The challenge is to keep the virus spreading in communities out of our schools.
To keep our students – and the rest of us – safe, everyone must practice the safety measures known to be effective that we’ve long recommended: wear a mask, wash your hands frequently and stay six feet away from others. If we all would do those things, the spread of COVID-19 would be greatly reduced in a few weeks.
Although we have sporadic downward trajectories in COVID-19 cases in South Carolina, we have yet to sustain that. This virus remains a serious threat of illness – and death – in our state.
With some schools planning more in-person learning and high school football underway, along with even greater activity from college football games and various businesses, we all must do our part to help bring this scourge under control.
It remains to be seen just how sending students back into buildings – or assembling tens of thousands at a football game – will ultimately affect the spread of COVID-19. We’ve been at this crossroad before when we previously saw a leveling disease trajectory. Reopening schools allows students to continue their education and parents to return to work reassured. However, if we are not careful in our communities, doing the right thing by reopening schools can take a wrong turn that results in children, families and communities facing greater exposure to this harmful virus.
Let’s do what we know works: wear masks, stay our distance and practice other measures that reduce disease spread. A DHEC analysis has shown that jurisdictions in South Carolina with mask requirements have experienced a slower rate of disease spread compared to communities without requirements.
Other countries successfully restarted school using measures such as smaller class sizes, physical distancing and staggered attendance. It is reassuring that our districts are taking such steps. But even when schools carefully prepare, cases still occur.
Remember: Schools reflect the surrounding community. The lower the risk of transmission in the community, the lower the risk in schools. Unfortunately, as it stands, few counties in South Carolina have disease rates on a downward trajectory for more than seven days.
We must do everything possible in each business, recreational setting and community to protect us all.
DHEC is committed to increasing testing to monitor the spread of the virus. But we must prevent new cases before they occur. Until vaccines that prevent COVID-19 are widely available we must be more vigilant about applying the most effective tools we have to lower the spread and create a safer environment for students in school.
DHEC, like other public health agencies across our nation, has preached the virtues of these preventive measures for months. But the time has come. With our children’s safety and education at stake, wearing a mask isn’t a burden or intrusion. It’s a duty.
Dr. Linda Bell is state epidemiologist for South Carolina.