Horry County Schools did their best to quash rumors Monday night that the district was coding COVID-19 cases as flu cases to cover up the “real” numbers.
“I don’t have enough time to invent data,” said HCS Superintendent Rick Maxey. We’re not hiding anything. What we’re doing is dealing with the facts, with what we know. And it’s verified by DHEC [the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control].”
The board voted Monday night to change their Re-Opening Plan to move to hybrid instruction indefinitely, until the district sees fit to move schools to face-to-face, five-day learning.
This also meant that each school would be considered separately – if there were to be an outbreak, the district could decide to move only that particular school to distance learning for a time, or a school with no cases might be moved to full-time school.
Part of the changes approved also include using the HCS COVID-19 dashboard information in the decision-making process, and Maxey said all information on the dashboard is updated twice a day and the positives are DHEC-verified.
Chief of Student Services Velna Allen and Director of Health Services Tammy Trulove addressed the board to explain the new way the district is coding attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic, a coding method given to the district by the S.C. Department of Education.
Allen said some parents were upset when they logged into their recently-absent student’s Powerschool (student data software) account to see that it was coded “SC-FLU.”
“Part of the confusion some have experienced with parents is that a nurse has nothing to do with attendance. They don’t enter attendance codes,” Allen said.
Nurses send the information to the attendance clerks to code, Allen said, and if they see the child and send them home, they tell the clerk it should be “SC-NURS” in the system.
“If the nurse does not see the child, they cannot recommend an excused code. They would be making decisions on a child they did not lay their eyes on,” Allen said.
As for how attendance is being coded for children who go home feeling sick, board chairman Ken Richardson asked Allen if people were coding sick children with the flu to hide COVID-19 cases.
“I’m not part of any conspiracy theory,” Allen said.
SC-FLU is not a new code, Allen said, it has been used before for flu season, and she and Trulove both emphasized to the board that there is not a separate code for COVID-19 in the system.
The district was instructed by the state to use SC-FLU when a child is showing flu-like symptoms, Allen said.
“We do not change that code even if they become DHEC-confirmed positive. It will still show SC-FLU,” Allen said.
Once the district has confirmation of a positive virus case, they will go into the comments section of the SC-FLU code and put in the term “COVID” or “COVID-19”.
But when parents go in and see “SC-FLU”, they don’t have access to the comments section to see the COVID designation, so all they will see is “SC-FLU”.
Clearing up confusion on quarantines, contact tracing, and testing
The HCS COVID-19 dashboard currently shows active virus cases for seven days before moving them to the “historical” category, based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Some board members questioned why that happened after seven days, when students are asked to quarantine for ten.
“Maybe that’s why a lot of people think our dashboard is incorrect. To me, you’re not historic until you walk back into school,” said District 5 board member Janice Morreale. “I don’t think that’s accurate representation … it’s not covering the whole time you’re supposed to quarantine … not painting an accurate picture of what’s actually happening in the building.”
Allen said the district had only had the dashboard for a month, and if any changes needed to be made regarding how things are reported, they are open to making those changes.
“We’re so new into the process it’s no problem to adjust this to bring everything in line,” Chairman Richardson said.
Contrary to popular belief, a child does not have to have a negative test before they can return to school, Allen said.
“HCS cannot require a parent to test a child. We can’t say you can’t come back until you have a negative test,” Allen said.
If a child is quarantined for their ten days and no longer has symptoms, they are free and clear to come back to school, she said. However, if the child tested negative but still is showing symptoms, Trulove said they still have to complete the quarantine until they no longer have symptoms.
“We do have a guideline that says if they test negative and they are not symptomatic, they can return to school,” Trulove said.
Allen said contact tracing is one thing the district gets more calls about than any other, and she gave an example scenario.
If a student is living in a house with someone who tests positive – say, a grandparent – and the household has been told to quarantine, but the child has no symptoms, his absence is listed as “SC-FLU” in Powerschool.
“[The child] has never had COVID but we’re excusing [their] days because that’s the right thing to do for those days,” Allen said.
The student’s teacher was not in close contact with the grandparent, so there would not be a need to notify the teacher or classrooms.
“This is where attendance could get confusing,” she said.
No other students would need to be notified or quarantined because they were not exposed to the grandparent. It’s considered a third-party contact of a contact, she said.
“There’s no testing or quarantine for that, DHEC says we don’t have to,” Allen said.
This student in quarantine with no symptoms due to their positive grandparent would not be reflected on the HCS Dashboard. He doesn’t have the virus, and is not a risk to anyone at that school, Allen said.
If this quarantined student were to start showing symptoms part of the way through quarantine, the student would not be able to return at the end of the original 14 days of quarantine and will have an additional ten days of isolation.
“That’s why you may have heard some kids quarantined for 24 days, provided they don’t go to the doctor or have negative tests,” Allen said.
District 1 board member Russell Freeman, who was the lone dissenting vote against changing the Re-Opening Plan, confirmed with Allen that yes, if a student or their family does not self-report in those types of situations, the school might never know.
Maxey said that the district needs to evaluate each school on its own merit, and if quarantines or cases prevent the functioning of a school due to a virus “hotspot”, then the district would consider having that school go to distance learning for a brief time.
He also said that he had issue with the data range given by DHEC.
“It’s a very arbitrary thing. In defense of DHEC, they are looking the state as a whole, by county. We need to evaluate each one [school] on its own merits,” Maxey said. “Carolina Forest High School is going to be different than Aynor High School or Green Sea Floyds High School. My preference is that we look at individual situations and the number of people impacted, and make a subjective decision based on that, instead of arbitrary numbers. We think that will serve us better as far as thresholds, looking at it individually.”
To watch the entire, detailed presentation by Trulove and Allen regarding how the district handles both student and staff quarantining, and contact tracing, visit https://www.horrycountyschools.net/Page/10116 later this week to view the recorded video of the Oct. 19 meeting when it is posted by the district.