Lancaster schools shorten COVID quarantine period, won’t mandate masks

LANCASTER COUNTY, S.C. — The Lancaster County School Board met Friday morning to hold a special meeting to discuss COVID issues -- with everything from changing quarantine protocols, to implementing a mask mandate, to approving a virtual school option all on the agenda.

The meeting started at 9 a.m. and was attended by dozens of parents. It began with the board of education discussing the state’s new mask mandate on school buses. Parents were told a mask is now required for bus riders and that bus drivers will give a student a mask if they do not have one.

Superintendent Jonathan Phipps announced at the beginning of the meeting that the district will not mandate masks in schools.

That’s the news parent Courtney Green wanted to hear.

“I don’t think masks should be required. If you want your child to wear one, then absolutely do,” she said.

However, she said she was open to talking about masks. Green’s 7-year-old son has been quarantined from Buford Elementary School since the second day of class. It’s not the way she expected to start the new school year.

“On the 17th at 11:30 a.m., I got a call from the nurse asking me to pick him up as soon as I could because there was a close contact,” Green said.

During Friday’s meeting, the school board was faced with a balancing act -- hearing from parents who want more protection for the children as well as parents who say the school board is doing too much. Many parents were able to voice their concerns and direct questions at board members.

One parent told the school board that the instability in schools has “wreaked havoc on our children, and we are failing them.”

According to last week’s numbers, Lancaster County had 1,110 students and staff quarantined for the week of Aug. 16-20. Lancaster schools currently has more positive COVID-19 cases than any week from the past school year -- 222 cases, with 186 of them being students.

Carla Etters has a daughter at Buford High School. They had planned to have her do virtual school again this year, but when few signed up for it, the school district didn’t offer it. The district said less than 150 students showed interest in the virtual academy for the 2021-2022 school year, out of more than 14,000 students.

“Two weeks before school started I got an email stating that virtual was no longer an option,” Etters said. “My daughter did not want to go to school. She was terrified being around all those kids.”

There is a virtual state-run program available to students, but it’s not the same as last year. Parents told Channel 9 it’s not as thorough or easy to access.

The school board said it will be sending out a survey next week to parents in order to gauge interest in a virtual school option. If that becomes a reality, school leaders said they would need to hire more teachers, and could possibly look for retired teachers to help.

“What I’m really looking for is to make sure we keep our schools open for in-person learning,” said one father who has four kids enrolled in Lancaster County schools. “If people want the option for virtual, I believe they should have that -- that is their right. But my students I feel like are all 1 to 2 years behind their grade level from virtual learning. They’re just not getting the education they need.”

On Friday, the board voted to change the school district’s quarantine period for students who come in contact with someone who tests positive from 14 to 10 days, and were discussing the possibility and feasibility of creating a 7-day option. A nursing supervisor who spoke at the meeting said the district would need to double their current nursing staff in order to switch from a 14-day quarantine period to a 7-day, because of all the monitoring that would be needed.

The district currently has 25 nurses.

The option for a 7-day quarantine period will be explored in the future.

Green said the quarantine rules are most concerning for her. Her son’s whole class was quarantined, and her son is fine showing no signs of illness.

“I would really be interested to speak to every parent in my son’s class to see if any of them showed any symptoms. He has no symptoms at all,” she said.

On Thursday night, students and parents at Indian Land Middle School were supposed to gather for an open house. However, this week parents got an email telling them the event was now virtual, and no one would be on campus.

(WATCH: Local middle school goes virtual after dozens of positive COVID-19 cases)