Sumter School District staffing limits uniform COVID-19 mitigation strategies

Sumter district now in 5th week of school amid COVID-19 surge


Uniform COVID-19 mitigation policies across the district may seem the best approach to limiting virus spread, but staffing availability and other factors prevent all Sumter schools from having the same standards in place.

Sumter School District Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox discussed at last week's regularly scheduled meeting with the district's Board of Trustees that current fluctuations in teachers and staff availability at schools prevent a blanket approach in COVID-19 mitigation policy across all schools.

The topic came up as school board members discussed mitigation strategies to combat the spread of COVID-19 since the delta variant has burdened the district and schools across the nation in the first several weeks of class with increased virus cases and quarantines among students and staff.

For example, a standard, district-wide policy for all students to eat lunch in their classrooms instead of a busy cafeteria seems like a best practice and approach.

But staff availability also weighs into a decision like this, Martin-Knox said.

"There are some schools that are being hit harder with staffing than other schools," she said. "So, I can say, 'Yes, eat in the classroom.' But if I don't have a teacher present in that classroom and I have one teacher who is doubling classes, it eliminates a lot of the mitigating strategies that exist."

In the first four weeks of school through Sept. 10, Sumter's public schools had 210 staff who either tested positive for COVID-19 or had been directed to quarantine for at least a 10-day period as a "close contact."

The student counts for virus cases and quarantines as "close contacts" were significantly higher, averaging more than 1,500 per week.

In adhering to state department of public health guidance, students determined to be less than 3 feet from an infected student for a total of 15 minutes or more during a 24-hour period are classified as "close contacts," even if wearing a mask, unless they have been fully vaccinated. Children under the age of 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated in the U.S.

Martin-Knox added that greater social distancing measures were possible last school year when the district was hybrid with students alternating days between virtual and in-person, classroom instruction.

She said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 3 to 6 feet for social distancing when possible. Currently, if children wear a mask and are determined to be 3 to 6 feet from an infected student, they are not considered a "close contact" and don't have to quarantine.

"Last year, when we were hybrid, that's why we went hybrid because we could 6-foot socially distance, and we could put a desk between every child," Martin-Knox said. "When you have all the kids in the classroom, it's difficult to socially distance them."

She continued that because COVID-19 vaccines cannot be mandated, ensuring students and staff are wearing a mask is one of the only methods to slow the spread of the virus.

At the conclusion of last week's board meeting, the trustees voted down a two-week mask mandate for students and staff 5-4. However, board members did unanimously approve a resolution urging the state's General Assembly to reconvene and repeal a budget amendment from this summer that bans such mandates.