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Children show up for school at Conway Elementary School on the first day of school in Horry County on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

Horry County school district officials don't plan to rebuff state lawmakers with a mask mandate for students and staff, but they insist they are taking other precautions to keep students safe and schools open.

“We’re going to do everything humanly possible to keep our kids in school,” said Chief of Student Services Velna Allen.

As of Monday afternoon, the HCS COVID-19 dashboard showed 336 current positive COVID cases, including 286 students and 51 staff members. So far, 99 staff members are in quarantine.

Tammy Trulove, HCS's director of health services, said at least 10 full classrooms across the district are currently in quarantine due to being in close contact to someone with COVID-19.

HCS hopes to begin including student quarantine numbers on the dashboard by next week, but staff members need more “manpower” to successfully gather that information.

Allen emphasized that the dashboard now is reflective of what is going on in the community, not what is going on in the schools.

“These numbers don’t have anything to do with us … in another week or two, it will tell us a true picture of what happened when we went back to school,” Allen said, noting no one has had time for a virus incubation period or quarantine only four days into the school year.

Those who are fully vaccinated with no symptoms, or who have had a positive COVID-19 test in the last three months and have no symptoms, are not required to quarantine.

Allen explained that close contacts are determined by being within three feet (for students, and six feet for adults) of the infected person for a cumulative period of 15 minutes in a 24-hour period. Not a solid, straight 15 minutes, but repeated contact throughout the day that adds up to 15 minutes.

Many in the community have wondered how entire classes are being made to quarantine due to these specifications, but Allen also explained that if three people in a cohort (group) receive a positive COVID-19 result within a 14-day period, the entire group must quarantine unless one of the two quarantine exceptions applies.

“This means any group of students that hang together," Allen said. "This could mean a football team, band, an entire class."

Though the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) continue to recommend 14 days of quarantine, and even though HCS did lessen the quarantine to 10 days at the end of last school year, they wanted to be extra careful and kept it to 14 days for the beginning of the school year.

“We have decided to take the more cautious approach of requiring the 14-day because of the recent increase [in COVID cases],” Allen said. “If it seems like we’re changing the rules, we are. Next time we will let people know beforehand."

District 1 board member Russell Freeman asked if there was a certain number of classrooms in quarantine that would close down a school for distance learning.

Allen said they are in contact with administrators regarding the possibility of that situation, but said “we’re not there yet."

She acknowledged that depending on how the number of cases went, closing a school for a few days in the future was not out of the realm of possibility.

Mandy Barnhill, a Conway High graduate, spoke passionately during public comment saying that mandating masks is not something that Horry County Schools should be doing.

“Science shows masks have little to no benefit to the general public,” Barnhill said.

The CDC recommends that all students and staff wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

Parent Laura Honeycutt, whose child attends Conway Elementary, said that while her child was a virtual student last year, they were excited to begin school. She is a fan of masks.

“Several counties are working around the law to protect our children,” Honeycutt said, referring to school districts that have passed mask mandates despite challenges to that position.

Coastal Carolina University employee Scott Dean spoke to the board, saying he wants children to be safe.

“Can we do something so that the law is changed so that everybody can wear a mask?”, Dean said, saying his wife has a serious heart condition for which she is having surgery soon.

“It scares us every single day to send our kids to school with a mask when others aren’t wearing them,” Dean said. “Please advocate for masks … anything that guards us from someone else that might save one life, it’s worth saving. You said you’re building for the future – what if there isn’t a future to use those buildings? Take care of everyone now – keep everybody safe for this short span to get on the other side of this.”

Superintendent Rick Maxey reiterated that due to a proviso in the state budget, no mask mandates may be put in place and no state funding can be used to enforce a mandate.

“I know there are a lot of opinions, but for now, HCS is simply following the law,” Maxey said, noting they are encouraging people to wear masks, especially when in groups. “That’s where we are.”

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