Greenville County schools will open Aug. 17 with no face mask or vaccination requirements based on guidelines from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and the South Carolina Department of Education.
Burke Royster, superintendent of Greenville County schools, told the school board Tuesday that life in public schools this fall will essentially be back to pre-COVID-19 days.
The CDC and doctors have encouraged mask wearing, including in schools, due to the increasing number of cases of the highly contagious delta variant.
Greenville County, like most counties in South Carolina, has a high incidence of COVID-19 and zero days with a decline in cases.
One in four Greenville County residents have been vaccinated, according to DHEC’s COVID dashboard.
Two school board members expressed concern with the lack of masking and other safety measures.
“I’m all about wearing a mask,” board member Michelle Goodwin-Calwile, a retired educator, said. “That’s why I’m masked today, and I have been vaccinated.”
She said masks have become a political issue and decisions should be made by scientists and not politicians.
“The politicians should stay in their lane,” Goodwin-Calwile said.
Board Chairman Roger Meek read a question from an absent board member about whether students could be grouped based on mask wearing. Royster said that was not feasibly possible.
The decision for students to wear masks is up to parental preference, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster says.
Two school board members were absent Tuesday, and Meek did not say which one asked the question about grouping students.
Two previously outspoken opponents of masking, board members Angie Mosley and Sarah Dulin, did not specifically voice opinions about the new protocols, but they did point out the district would lose state funding if it did not comply with state directives. A provision in the state budget may prohibit schools from requiring face masks as long as they receive state funding, though some critics argue that the provision is not clear-cut.
Royster said state funding amounts to about 30% of the district’s budget.
Dulin said, “$200 million?” Royster said he would get the specific amount. Dulin replied that taxpayers need to know their taxes would be raised if the district did not comply.
Moseley asked for assurance that the district would not tolerate bullying of any student based on whether they were wearing a mask.
In classrooms, students will be 3 feet apart. As with state guidelines, which Royster said had the effect of law, plexiglass shields will not be used, and employees will not be allowed to ask the vaccination status of students. In addition, district officials will not be allowed to ask employees if they are vaccinated.
Vaccinations will not be required.
Masks will not be required on school buses, and there is no limitation on the number of students that can ride, other than capacity. Last school year, buses were limited to 67% of capacity.
Board member Derek Lewis asked if an entire bus would have to be quarantined if one student tested positive.
Royster said it likely would affect a few seated on the same seat.
Greenville County was one of a few districts that held out going full-time in the last school year. It did so when McMaster required schools to fully reopen about a month before school ended. High school students were in school 75% of the time because of space limitations and the need for social distancing.
Royster said Tuesday that schools would be in session five days a week. If parents did not want that, they can enroll their students in virtual school. The state has limited virtual schools to 5% of total enrollment, which in Greenville County would be 3,600 students. About 2,500 students are enrolled now, compared with 23,000 last year.
If the district enrolls more virtual students than the limit, it would receive less state funding. Royster said the state’s posture is it costs the district less to educate a child virtually. He said he thinks of it as parental choice.
The district will continue to do contact tracing and require quarantine for those exposed and isolation for those who test positive.
Royster said COVID protocols could change based on the increasing numbers of positive COVID cases and additional state guidance.