Horry County schools will not be in regular session through at least March 31 as state officials seek to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Gov. Henry McMaster on Sunday announced his decision to change the schedule for all of the state's public schools and colleges. The news came just hours after Grand Strand Medical Center confirmed that a patient there had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. It was the first coronavirus case in the county. So far, 28 cases have been confirmed statewide, now including three in Horry.
"All the decisions that we have made thus far have been to do one thing and that's to save [the] lives of the people of South Carolina," McMaster said. "School closings are inconvenient. We know that. They're inconvenient for everybody: for working parents, for families as well as employers. We understand that."
The Horry County Board of Education will hold an emergency meeting at 7 p.m. Sunday to discuss the school district's response to the governor's decision, according to a news release from the district.
During the governor's news conference, S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said state officials have asked individual school districts to submit 10-day instructional plans. Districts would be asked to implement those plans during the closures.
She said state officials are trying to make the state’s virtual learning program, which is already used by 34,000 children, accessible to more students.
“We’re working hard together,” Spearman said, thanking all school officials. “We believe that we have made the decision at the right time.”
The statewide closures come two days after McMaster announced he would close schools in Kershaw and Lancaster counties. At that time, he said those were the only areas of the state where there was evidence of what’s known as “community spread,” where people in an area become infected and some may not know how or where they got sick.
As for the difference between Friday and Sunday?
"What's changed is the data that we've been receiving from DHEC as the numbers increase," Spearman said. "We worked as hard as we could because we know the burden that this is putting on our working families. And we need families to be able to work and continue on [with] their lives. So we tried as hard as we could to make the right decision for South Carolina, but that moment has come where we need to close all schools."
Teachers will be paid while schools are closed, Spearman said. Make-up days and other scheduling matters are still being decided. Local districts will be able to call in certain personnel to work if there's a need.
"Some folks will be continuing to work," Spearman said. "That will be at the discretion of the superintendent."
The S.C. Department of Education’s Office of Health and Nutrition has been granted a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will allow school districts' summer meals programs to be used during the school closures.
That means certain schools will offer two meals per day to students. Those meals will be available for pick up at those schools or they could be delivered by buses, depending on need, Spearman said.
The superintendent said her department has asked federal officials for a waiver to suspend required student assessments that are traditionally administered during the spring.
“There’s no need for our teachers and our students to have this anxiety of what’s going to happen on testing,” Spearman said. “We are going to ask to suspend those tests this year.”
During the news conference, McMaster encouraged people not to gather in groups of 100 or more.
"That is a recommendation and a very strong suggestion at this point," he said. "This is a fluid situation. This is something we have not seen before. Nobody in the country has seen it before. So there will be changes and adjustments as we go forward."
McMaster was asked if he would ask bars and restaurants to limit their operations to takeout orders. He said no.
"Everything is under consideration," he said. "We are not at that point at this time."
McMaster urged people not to shake hands and follow basic hygiene guidelines, such as washing hands with soap and water.
"We know it's going to spread," he said. "We need it to be manageable, and that's why we're taking these steps. We'd like to eliminate it, but that's asking too much at this point."
The decision to close schools does not directly impact day cares and private schools, but the governor has encouraged those establishments to follow the same schedule as the public schools.
COVID-19 first showed up in South Carolina in Kershaw County and Charleston County on March 6, and since then, the number of presumed positive cases in South Carolina has jumped to 28 as of Sunday afternoon. A presumptive positive means a test has been confirmed positive by DHEC, but still has to be tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can take several days before the CDC confirms a positive test.
COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan, China in December, but China didn’t confirm its existence until January. The virus reached America in late January.
The disease mainly targets the respiratory system, and while young people are likely to be fine if they get it, older people with weaker immune systems are more susceptible.
The CDC has encouraged people to practice "social distancing," to restrict their travel and to avoid large gatherings in order to slow down the spread of the virus, which has an average incubation period of five days, but is some cases can last for several weeks.That means younger healthy people without severe symptoms can still transfer the virus to more susceptible populations who may require a hospital stay to survive.
To exercise caution, many events starting this weekend were cancelled, including North Myrtle Beach's St. Patrick's Day parade and festival, Monday After the Masters, and many others.
Horry-Georgetown Technical College announced classes from March 16 through March 20 were cancelled, and all classes after spring break will be online.
MyHorryNews has a running list of Grand Strand events that have been canceled due to concerns over the novel coronavirus, and a page dedicated to all COVID-19 news.
In preparation to the spread of the coronavirus, Surfside Beach, Conway, and Horry County all declared a localized state of emergency. Last week, McMaster and President Donald Trump also declared states of emergencies.