HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — COVID-19 has created a new dynamic in how school districts across the nation are planning to keep students, teachers and faculty healthy in the new school year.
South Carolina’s 1,261 schools are returning with full face-to-face classes as virus cases continue to climb. Every county in South Carolina in the “high” incidence rate category, according to the latest South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) data.
Grant Tucker is one of the thousands of students planning to go back to class in Horry County next week. Ask him if he’s excited — and the answer’s an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ — and his mother’s looking forward to a sense of normalcy, too.
One thing that will remain the same as he tackles a new grade is a big personal focus on his health and hygiene.
“We’ll always tell him to wash his hands [and] make sure he tries to keep his hands out of his eyes,” his mother, Heather Tucker, explained. “At school, we just tell him to use his best judgment.”
Each school district in South Carolina has developed a Safe Return to In-Person Instruction and Continuity of Services plan for the new school year. The custom-tailored plans address mask wearing, hygiene, social distancing, contact tracing, screening and testing, and continuity of services.
Districts are required to review and revise their Safe Return plan at least every six months. The South Carolina Department of Education said that’ll continue through Sept. 30, 2023.
Horry County plans to have a school nurse in each of its schools to monitor student and staff health throughout the 2021-2022 school year. Tammy Trulove, director of health services for Horry County Schools, said the district is adding three additional floating nurses to its team to help schools throughout the district as needed.
“That means six additional schools will actually have the opportunity to have a nurse work with their nurse on a regular basis. We have maintained our float staff and have the ability to float those individuals to the areas of greatest need,” Trulove explained. “Not every district in our state is as lucky when it comes to school nurse staffing as we are in Horry County.”
She said district nurses see an average of 45 to 50 students per day at each school — and COVID-19 has put a new spotlight on the coughs, sniffles and sneezes that travel throughout.
“I think COVID has made us more cautious in our approach to illness, and that doesn’t always sit well with everyone, but we have to protect everyone in the school system,” she said.
So what happens if your child falls ill in the classroom?
Trulove says teachers are trained to identify illnesses in their students, at which time they’ll get sent to the nurse’s office. If the school nurse identifies two or more COVID-like symptoms in the student, a parent will be called to pick up the student. Should a student test positive for COVID-19 — whether or not they were already absent or sent home from school — contact tracing will begin.
The district will limit the number of trips to the nurse’s office this school year as a tactic to keep healthy and ill students separated.
“The guidelines have not changed in terms of contact tracing, but what has changed are vaccinations. If a child has been vaccinated and they are asymptomatic, they can remain in school,” she said. “If they’re vaccinated and symptomatic, we will quarantine them just like we do with the [rest of the cases].”
However, Trulove said school nurses will not diagnose students and currently will not test them in the school setting for COVID-19. Parents, she said, will have to get their child tested and a private doctor must make an official diagnosis.
Horry County school leaders says it will continue to use the seven mitigation strategies recommended by the CDC when it comes to cleaning, social distancing and mask wearing.
“I still would encourage individuals, if they felt like they needed to wear a mask, especially if they were not vaccinated, I would encourage them to do so,” Trulove said.
Horry County Schools — as a whole — plans to continue countywide case monitoring to quickly identify clusters or trends happening at individual schools or classrooms. Trulove said there will be serious discussion as to how to respond to case clusters among school staff, district leaders, local health professionals and DHEC. Those discussions will lead to whether or not classes or schools must quarantine or if extra cleaning measures need taken.
“Let’s say we have three kindergarten classes and we have 25 kids out. Then we would start looking about increasing the sanitation [and] increasing the level of monitoring for that particular area,” she said.
Moving forward, district leaders believe the extra disinfecting, sanitizing and cleaning brought on by COVID-19 will simply become the norm. Trulove agrees.
“I do think hygiene is going to be the norm in schools. I think hygiene needs to be the norm in schools,” she said.
Back in Palmetto Pointe, Tucker said she’s taking comfort in that as Grant heads back to class.
“I always feared it, but I knew his school and his teacher, and I knew they would keep them as safe as they can and they did everything possible to make sure everything turned out well,” she said.