COLUMBIA - South Carolina's education superintendent said she has sent $43 million of protective equipment to more than 1,300 schools in the state - fulfilling every item in their requests to help them open for in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And Superintendent Molly Spearman promised Tuesday there is enough money left in the billions of dollars the federal government sent to South Carolina for pandemic help to pay for whatever else schools ask for as she urges every school district to get children back in classrooms - at least part of the time.
"You may hear some of them saying we need more things. We are telling them, let us know what you need. We have the funding to get it for you," Spearman said.
The latest purchases include 300,000 sheets of Plexiglass. Spearman cited health experts as saying those barriers, when combined with masks, cut the distance needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in half to 3 feet. The sheets are going up between students at desks and tables.
The Education Department has also bought 3.3 million masks, 87,000 face shields, 600,000 cases of disinfectant wipes, 108,000 boxes of disposable gloves and more than 41,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, Spearman said.
All that equipment combined with mask wearing, hand washing and deep cleaning of schools make them some of the safest indoor spaces in South Carolina, the superintendent said.
"Sending your child back to school is safer than them going with you grocery shopping," Spearman said.
State officials spent $33 million in the most recent shipment of safety equipment after spending $10 million at the end of the summer.
As the rate of new COVID-19 cases continues to alarmingly rise in the Midwest, the spread of the virus has stabilized in South Carolina. But experts said that is not a positive development because the state is still averaging 843 new cases a day during the past week.
That's still in the top half of the nation and similar to where South Carolina was in late August, with occasional spikes and dips. The rate of positive results from coronavirus tests still hovers above 10% most days. Experts said 5% or lower is needed to feel confident that the virus is not spreading.
South Carolina has had more than 152,000 people infected with the coronavirus that causes the disease since the pandemic started seven months ago. More than 3,350 people have died, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
And COVID-19 is still affecting schools. Presbyterian College announced Monday it is returning to online classes only for two weeks after reporting 49 people on campus diagnosed with COVID-19 The college in Clinton has about 1,100 students.
The school held a graduation ceremony delayed from last spring on Saturday with more than 200 graduates returning to campus.
Public elementary, middle and high school across the state are also keeping up with COVID-19 infections. As of last Thursday, more than 800 students and 330 teachers had the virus, health officials reported.
Spearman said it is impossible to prevent any infection and she said communities around schools play a big role in keeping students safe.
"What we need is for the communities around the schools to take it just as seriously as we do inside school," Spearman said.
Just four of South Carolina's more than 80 school districts are still teaching all classes virtually. Most have brought back students at least a few days a week, with some with children in classrooms all five days. Every district is also offering all virtual school options.
Spearman said it is time to make sure all students can get back to the classroom and she promised teachers it is safe.
"I would say to teachers, we need you. This pandemic if anything it has spotlighted just how important the relationship between a teacher and her students or his students are," Spearman said, "We know you are working hard virtually. And for some families it is working. But there are many students that this just isn't a good fit for them."
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