Fewer SC students will need to quarantine after COVID exposure under new DHEC guidance

·3 min read

In an effort to keep more South Carolina students in the classroom, state health officials are no longer requiring some unvaccinated students to quarantine after exposure to the coronavirus.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control Tuesday narrowed its definition of a “close contact” to exclude masked students who were between 3 and 6 feet from an infected individual.

The update to the health department’s COVID-19 schools guidance means that only unmasked and unvaccinated students who are exposed to an infected person or unvaccinated students who are masked but closer than 3 feet from an infected person for an extended period of time will be required to quarantine.

Fully vaccinated students and students who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 90 days already had been exempt from quarantine unless they developed COVID-19 symptoms.

The revised policy, which deviates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance for schools, applies only to students, not teachers and staff.

“The federal guidance set up an unintended, unfair situation for a student who’s a contact if they were properly masked, but the infected student wasn’t,” said Brannon Traxler, DHEC’s director of public health. “This update remedies this fairness issue and provides an incentive to students to wear masks to decrease the possibility of needing to quarantine.”

State health officials said they could not estimate how many students might have avoided quarantine this year had the revised policy been in place from the outset. They said the change in guidance should keep more students in the classroom and could potentially prevent schools with active COVID-19 outbreaks from having to temporarily implement full virtual learning.

DHEC’s previous quarantine guidelines had rankled some parents and lawmakers, including Gov. Henry McMaster, who has advocated for limiting the number of students and staff required to quarantine after COVID-19 exposure.

Roughly 220,000 students and 6,000 school staff have had to quarantine already this school year, according to state health department data. Dozens of schools and some entire districts have been forced to temporarily suspend in-person classes after outbreaks sent large swaths of students home to quarantine.

Since only a small percentage of the students made to quarantine after COVID-19 exposure end up testing positive for the virus, critics of DHEC’s policy had argued it was too restrictive and unnecessarily kept students out of class for seven to 14 days.

Traxler said fairness, not the fact that few quarantined students ultimately test positive for the virus, was the primary reason for the policy change.

“That said, public health does come first and we believe this recommendation is a safe one that will not cause additional COVID-19 spread but will allow for more children to safely continue learning in person,” she said.

The Department of Education, the state superintendents’ association and the governor’s office all were “extremely supportive” of the updated policy, which will serve the overall goal of keeping kids and teachers safely in person in school, Traxler said.

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