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Special Education staff member in Lancaster County dies from COVID-19 complications

The South Carolina school superintendent called the educator "a true reason of hope for a lot of kids."

LANCASTER COUNTY, S.C. — A South Middle School special education staff member has died following complications from COVID-19, according to the Lancaster County School district.

The staff member worked in Lancaster County schools in South Carolina for decades, superintendent Jonathan Phipps said, who later called the educator "a true beacon of hope for a lot of kids."

The principal at the school echoed the superintendent's sentiments. 

"If you were in our building for any period of time you knew who she was," David Sweem said. "She was elegant but also had a fire about her."

The school district leaders opted not to release the educator's name because they had not spoken with her family.

The special education staff member had been battling COVID-19 for several weeks, Sweem said. Last Tuesday, her condition took a turn for the worse. According to the superintendent, she passed away Saturday.

Grief counselors were made available to students and staff at the school Tuesday and Wednesday.

"It’s just heartbreaking," Sweem said. "The staff is devastated."

Phipps expressed concern Wednesday about "skyrocketing" COVID-19 cases and quarantines throughout the school district and the state.

"It makes me question if we are doing all we can do to keep kids safe," Phipps said.

According to the most recent COVID-19 data available to Phipps, the school system saw 89 people with confirmed cases in just one day, Sept. 8. An additional 63 people were symptomatic.

At South Middle School where this educator taught, there were more teachers and staff with confirmed positive cases last week than any other school in the district: seven. Phipps said he did not believe the cases were connected.

With thousands of students and staff in quarantine this week and hundreds more that have tested positive, Phipps said he will continue to stress the need for more people to wear masks.

"We can look at just the first three weeks of school, and we can put it next to months of last year," Phipps said.

Lancaster County School District is mask-optional for students and staff, however, both Phipps and Sweem said it appears most students and staff are opting to wear masks. 

Phipps said he wished there was a scenario where mask use would be mandatory "even if just for a month," although, under state law, he does not believe that is possible right now. 

A budget proviso stipulates school districts cannot appropriate funds from this budget year to enact a mask mandate. Several school districts have opted to defy the proviso and have found workarounds to enact mask mandates.

RELATED: Defying South Carolina law, York District 1 votes for indoor mask requirements

The South Carolina Supreme Court is considering one such case now, stemming from a school mask mandate in Richland County School District One. Phipps said he will be watching that ruling closely.

RELATED: Richland One says it's keeping its school mask mandate for now, despite ruling

Meanwhile, in late August, the Lancaster School District Board of Trustees voted to provide a 10-day quarantine option for students who may have been exposed to COVID-19, allowing them to return to the classroom sooner than 14 days.

RELATED: Lancaster County School District board moves to shorten quarantine period for students exposed to COVID-19

If no symptoms have shown up during the first 10 days of quarantine, students can return to school on the 11th day, but they must wear a mask for the remaining days of the 14-day quarantine period in all school district facilities and events. They must also follow physical distancing guidelines and continue to daily monitor symptoms. If symptoms develop, they must notify the school. 

Contact Tanya Mendis at tmendis@wcnc.com and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.