S.C. health officials encourage mask use, vaccines in schools as variant spreads


COLUMBIA - South Carolina health officials are still recommending students and teachers wear masks indoors to curb COVID-19's spread in the upcoming school year, though state lawmakers have already banned school districts from requiring the face coverings in facilities.

The mask recommendation is part of new coronavirus guidance for schools released by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control on Thursday. Public health officials are also encouraging schools to set up vaccination clinics and maintain at least 3 feet of distance between students whenever possible.

The new guidance reflects current COVID-19 trends, the agency said. The delta variant has spurred a rapid rise in cases this summer, with a 92.6% jump in cases during the past week. And vaccination rates have plateaued, with just more than 44% of eligible residents fully immunized, according to data updated Tuesday by state health officials.

Education officials said earlier this week that the state can't follow new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending indoor mask use in school facilities regardless of vaccination status. State legislation went into effect this month that bars school districts in South Carolina from using appropriated funds "to require that its students and/or employees wear a face mask."

DHEC Public Health Director Dr. Brannon Traxler on Thursday acknowledged that it was ultimately up to parents to decide whether to listen to the experts.

"Parents need to make the decision that they are the most comfortable with for their children," Traxler said.

Gov. Henry McMaster, who has backed the ban on mask mandates and repeatedly refused to impose a statewide mask rule, has said that some experts should be listening to parents instead.

"The parents know their children, they know what's good for them, they know the school system," McMaster said Wednesday. "And a lot of our experts are not listening to parents."

The state health agency's new guidance is for masks to be worn on school buses, citing a CDC federal order in late January requiring masks on public transportation. Traxler said Thursday that each school district in the state should evaluate and make a decision on that particular matter.

Education Superintendent Molly Spearman urged schools to take the agency's advice into consideration.

"All members of our state's education system should familiarize themselves with this latest guidance, and schools and districts should implement the appropriate prevention strategies," Spearman said in a statement.

DHEC has tallied nearly 19,000 COVID-19 cases among students and staff since it began tracking those numbers last fall; the agency stopped counting in mid-June.

The Item's Bruce Mills contributed to this report.