The Pickens County School District will reopen Monday after a significant increase in COVID-19 cases among students and teachers forced schools to close and shift to remote learning.
Masks will not be required, Darian Byrd, the district spokesman, said Wednesday. Byrd issued a statement Thursday saying the district strongly recommends mask wearing and will make them available to students and staff..
“Please note that municipalities within Pickens County could enact ordinances that require the wearing of face coverings in public places. SDPC will honor these laws and ordinances for mask-wearing and social distancing as required by these regulations,” Byrd’s statement said.
The city of Clemson will hold a special meeting Friday afternoon to discuss mask wearing, according to an agenda on its website.
“Student and staff safety takes priority over any academic considerations,” Byrd said in the statement. “The school year ahead will not be easy, but the value of bringing students and teachers together to learn will be worth it. Building a safe school environment has always required teamwork and sacrifice.”
He asked parents to partner with the district on safety measures.
“Masks may be a tool, among other practices, that will create a successful ability to offer in-person learning,” the statement said.
On Wednesday, Byrd said the district did not want to go against the state’s budget proviso, in which the state legislature said schools could not mandate masks or they risk jeopardizing their state funding.
Byrd said administrators and board members have thoroughly discussed the situation.
“Everybody has a different view,” he said.
In the end, the administration decided they did not want to pit students and their families against administrators and teachers. Administrators did not want to require teachers to enforce a mask mandate.
Clemson University, located in Pickens and Anderson counties, is requiring masks in all its buildings around the state. The University of South Carolina, South Carolina State and the College of Charleston have all announced mask mandates.
Recovery from cases
The week off allowed the district to recover somewhat from the spike in cases, Byrd said. The district has spent the week cleaning its 24 schools, and some teachers have served their quarantines and will be allowed back.
Last week, there was an increase of 142 new cases.
But the cases aren’t decreasing. As of Tuesday, the district had 187 positive cases among students and 28 among teachers.
At that time, the district reported 615 students and 67 teachers in quarantine, which means they were exposed but had not tested positive for the coronavirus.
The number of cases reported Thursday was 223 students testing positive and 652 quarantined; among teachers, 29 tested positive and 62 were quarantined.
One child remains hospitalized and is recovering. Two teachers are hospitalized, including one on a ventilator.
On Monday, a group of about 100 people protested the closing of schools outside the Pickens County district office in Easley. At times, the group became boisterous, shouting “We want school” and placing large signs against the window and door.
“Let’s find another window,” one woman shouted, as a handful of children hurried around the side of the building.
One woman knocked repeatedly on the front door and stared into the office. Byrd said district personnel asked her to come inside, and they discussed the situation.
Pickens County has 16,400 students and was on its ninth day of the new school year when the closing was announced.
In an emergency meeting last Friday, the board was told the staff was “very concerned” as the delta variant was spreading throughout Pickens County. They announced after a closed session that they were closing school for a week.
When students return next Monday, they will be told some simple things to try to stem the spread. Spread out, don’t breathe on each other and cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough.
Byrd said administrators are fearful about what next week will bring. Byrd said school nurses face increased workloads in handling the COVID-19 spike in addition to their regular work. One nurse quit from the strain, Byrd said.
“This is going to be a nightmare for the whole state,” Byrd said.
Copyright (c) 2021, The State (Columbia, S.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.