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Governor Touts SC School Without Mask Rule as State Model

Governor Education Roundtable
Jeffrey Collins/AP
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster looks at data about the COVID-19 spread in the Kershaw County School District during a discussion with school officials at Camden Elementary School on Wednesday Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. Nurses, principals and school board members were part of the roundtable discussion. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins).

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster toured an elementary school in Camden on Wednesday that he said is an excellent example of how to fight COVID-19 in schools without requiring everyone to wear masks.

Camden Elementary School starts with a thermal scanner that takes the temperature of every student as they walk in without them having to stop. Any student warmer than normal is pulled aside and checked more carefully.

The school and others in the Kershaw County School District have isolation rooms set up where any students who might have COVID-19 can be placed.

When a possible case is identified, school nurses and others do a careful tracing to figure out whether any students were within 3 feet (1 meter) of an infected person for more than 15 minutes, which are the federal guidelines for having to quarantine. They review classroom seating charts, video from school buses and even game film from football games to try to only pull out students who are considered close contacts.

Classes are carefully measured to keep students the right distance apart and while half the students in a grade go to the cafeteria for lunch — sitting three students at an eight-student table — the other half stay in their classrooms.

"This is how you do it," McMaster said. "This is how you win in South Carolina."

Kershaw County schools do not have a mask mandate this school year, following the wishes of Republican legislators who put a one-year provision in the state budget meant to prevent school districts from requiring masks.

That rule was passed in June, when for the entire month, South Carolina reported about 100 COVID-19 deaths. On Wednesday alone, state health officials report 138 deaths with the monthly total halfway through September approaching 900 deaths.

State health officials have contradicted McMaster and Republican leaders who have said researchers aren't certain masks stop COVID-19's spread or hamper the development of children. They have asked the Legislature to return in special session and remove the ban on mask rules. Lawmakers so far have stayed home.

Some districts have gone ahead and passed mask requirements, but Kershaw County decided against it.

"People say 'we like to follow the science,' but the science is all over the place on this virus, so we have to use our heads and adapt," said Kershaw County School Board member Donald Copley, who is a medical doctor.

The school system did require masks last school year, and at Camden Elementary School, leftover signs remain this school year telling students they must cover their faces.

Superintendent Shane Robbins said a good number of students voluntarily wear masks, especially in elementary schools where they aren't old enough to be vaccinated.

The district has worked hard to try to reduce the number of students who have to isolate or quarantine since only a small number of children isolated because of contact become infected, especially if distancing and other safety rules are followed.

Two weeks after school started, the district had 233 positive COVID-19 cases and 1,330 people in quarantine. That number was down to 115 positive cases and 459 students, teachers and other in isolation as of Tuesday.

Robbins said the goal is to keep as many students as possible in front of a teacher learning in a classroom.

After speaking with Robbins, nurses, principals and school board members — no teachers were on the panel — McMaster said Kershaw County appeared to be a model district for fighting COVID-19.

"You don't want to underdo it," McMaster said "But you don't want to overdo it."


Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.