MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) – Harvard University researchers say younger children should have the first priority for returning to in-person classes during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI) has tracked the coronavirus in every county nationwide. The researchers have updated a “risk level” map daily and suggested what needs to be done to slow the spread of the virus.

HGHI has also released guidelines for reopening schools and what to do to keep them open.

“What we really need to do is involve local discussions because there are very important tradeoffs at stake,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai, an assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Harvard researchers say at least half of our counties are not ready for any in-person classes due to the transmission rates of COVID-19. Darlington, Florence, Marlboro, Scotland (NC) and Williamsburg counties are all at a “red” risk level. That means the infection rate is higher than 25 new daily cases per 100,000 people over the last week. Stay-at-home orders are also recommended in “red” counties.

Chesterfield, Dillon, Horry, Georgetown, Marion and Robeson counties are at an “orange” risk level. That means the infection rate is between 10 and 25 new daily cases per 100,000 people over the last week. An “orange” level also means stay-at-home orders are only advised if there isn’t enough testing and contact tracing in place.

Under the HGHI guidelines, “orange” counties could be advised to let some students return, but not all of them.

“Maybe those are counties where we hold back the high school-aged children and have them do virtual,” Dr. Tsai said.

Dr. Tsai also says kindergarten through eighth grade students should be the first priority for in-person classes, adding that teaching outside and using those empty high schools could create safer environments for kids.

“They may benefit more from in-person education, less of a risk from a transmission standpoint,” he said.

HGHI says that’s only possible if schools in “orange” counties have measures for what it calls “pandemic resilient learning.”

While South Carolina’s 15.1% positive test rate is triple what the World Health Organization recommends, school districts have to account for other factors like how many tests are done, hospitalizations and deaths in a community.

“The test positive rate, by itself, is not a goal, but it does give you directions on if you’re headed to the right destination,” said Dr. Tsai.

Several universities in North Carolina and across the country are reporting outbreaks as college students return.

Dr. Tsai says while Harvard’s guidelines are specifically for K-12 schools, colleges and their surrounding communities have similar steps to take like requiring masks and having enough testing.

“Schools don’t live in a bubble,” he said. “College campuses don’t occur in a bubble. They are part of a wider community, so the testing guidelines, the masking and physical distancing guidelines, all have to be aligned off-campus.”

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control’s data released Monday says in our area, Horry and Marion counties would be the only ones recommended for a hybrid model of classes, according to AccelerateED guidelines.