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DHEC releases back-to-school guidance as COVID Delta variant spreads in state

While masks and vaccinations can't be mandated in South Carolina, DHEC and the state school superintendent are urging both among students, staff and others.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina's top health agency has released new guidance for students, teachers, and others involved in education as the new school year quickly approaches.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) issued a seven-page update on Thursday morning regarding what students, teachers, and staff should do to help combat the spread of COVID-19 - particularly the aggressive Delta variant.

Among the highlights, DHEC reiterated the importance of wearing masks to slow the spread even as state legislation prevents them from being mandated.

"The use of masks and other precautions recommended in our guidance will also help ensure a safe, healthy environment in our schools especially with the emergence of the Delta variant,” DHEC Director Dr. Edward Simmer said.

The inability to more locally determine mask rules at the local level, however, is something that appeared to have frustrated State School Superintendent Molly Spearman a day prior to the new DHEC guidance.

"We had hoped that that would be a decision that would be made in each individual school district by those districts," Spearman said on Wednesday. "But, as you know, the state legislature did pass legislation in the budget that now prohibits districts from requiring mask mandates inside of school facilities.”

Full video: DHEC discusses vaccine guidance for schools 

The state health agency still provides leeway from children under two years of age, anyone with trouble breathing, or those unable to remove a face covering without assistance, suggesting they should not wear a mask.

Here are some of the other key recommendations:

  • At least three feet of distance between each student should be maintained to the greatest extent possible.
  • Case investigation and contact tracing are critical strategies to identify and isolate cases and test and quarantine close contacts to reduce transmission.
  • Mask use is required on school buses and other public transportation per federal CDC Order regardless of the mask policy at school or the individual’s vaccination status; school systems should take appropriate steps to ensure compliance with this requirement by students, staff, and others.

While DHEC said masks on buses is part of the federal order, Spearman has made clear before that will not be enforced by the state. 

According to the state Department of Education, it's up to school districts on whether they want to enforce masks on buses or not. This is because the proviso by the General Assembly that prohibits mandating masks only applies to districts' "education facilities."

RELATED: Masks will not be required for students in South Carolina this fall

Vaccinations are available for ages 12 and up at many locations across the state, many of which can be found through a locator page set up by DHEC.

DHEC also stressed the importance of vaccinations and "strongly encouraged" schools to work with local health officials and healthcare facilities to provide factual information about vaccines while also increasing access to vaccines by coordinating vaccine clinics for staff, students, and families.

"Our first priority is the safety of our children and teachers,” Director Simmer said. “That is why, above all else, we’re urging all eligible South Carolinians to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated if they haven’t already done so."

Otherwise, students should maintain a distance of three feet between one another. Other "critical strategies" included contact tracing and case investigation to find COVID cases and quarantine close contacts.

In a statement on Thursday, Spearman applauded DHEC's efforts in working with state schools.

"DHEC has been a tremendous partner for our agency and continues to provide sound public health advice for our students, families, and educators as we navigate the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic," she said.

Read the full guidance here:

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