AIKEN COUNTY, S.C. (WJBF) – Seventeen percent of the overall student population at Aiken County Schools are now quarantining due to COVID-19.

“I don’t think that virtual instruction is as good as face-to-face instruction,” school board chairman Dr. John Bradley told NewsChannel 6’s Aiken Bureau Chief Shawn Cabbagestalk about the situation. “It’s very frustrating.” Representative Melissa Oremus added. 

NewsChannel 6 has learned the number of Aiken County students in quarantine is more than 4,000. The emptier hallways are being seen at several local schools —including South Aiken High.  

“A large number of the cases that we’re dealing with, the student did not contract the disease while in school.  They were exposed somewhere else, according to contact tracing,” Dr. Bradley shared.

School leaders say masks could be an answer. “I would be very much in favor of requiring a mask,” Dr. Bradley said. “Masking and social distancing, we can’t do either one of those effectively given the circumstances,” he added.

Right now, a proviso in the state budget prohibits school districts from using state funds to implement and enforce a mask mandate.  Also, while it’s easier to keep elementary-level students in one classroom, high school students are constantly changing classes.

There are other methods that can help slow the spread other than limiting the number of students in class, but their hands are tied and they believe the issue has become political and the kids are paying the price.

“We’ve never been consulted by anybody in the legislature about what we would recommend or what should be done.  Not that we have any great wisdom on the matter, but I’m certain that they don’t either yet,  They’ve chosen to go this route for political considerations, I think, rather than putting the safety of the children first,” Dr. Bradley added.

“[The proviso is] basically leaving it up to the parent to make the decision for what is best for their child. If you want your child in a mask in class, then that’s completely up to you. It is saying that the Delta variant is so highly contagious, that masks are not doing anything to mitigate that,” Rep. Oremus said.

But if no changes are made, Dr. Bradley says, COVID and quarantine numbers will continue to increase. “I think that we saw something like a burnout last year, where the COVID would go along and then all of a sudden it would start to decline for no appreciable reason. I think they will continue to climb because, I saw the geometric where the more kids who get it, the more likely they are to spread it to greater numbers and therefore have an opportunity to affect more and more children.”

Also, voluntary teacher surveys were conducted, where 70% of those who responded said that they were vaccinated. “That’s encouraging that’s good news,” Dr. Bradley said. “Of course it may be that the people who didn’t get vaccinated were the ones who chose not to respond. So we just don’t know,” he added.

Some parents have been very vocal about their opposition to not having in-person learning, even speaking with their state representative. “I hear from parents every day who are telling me, you know, Melissa, what can we do about this? Our kids need to be face-to-face. They don’t need to be at home. I can’t be with them. I have to go to work. I can’t work from home,” Rep. Oremus shared.

She also has concerns about the quarantine policy. “So kids are just, are being sent home just because they may or may not have been exposed to COVID. And to me, that is absolutely ridiculous. Unless you’re showing signs, you need to be at school,” she shared.

“Well, we are struggling, frankly,” Dr. Bradley shared. “We are trying to run a five-day face-to-face program in addition to a much smaller, virtual program. With so many kids being quarantined, those children are losing a lot of instruction. It’s hard to go to class, be exposed, and then have to stay home for 14 days and miss at least 10 days or so of instruction in a two-week period. That’s one of the things that we got to look at again is really going to evaluate once again what we’re doing in terms of remote instruction, so that hopefully we’re going to find a way that the child or the student can stay in touch with his class in real-time while they’re being quarantined, that would be might hope that will we’ll come up with a way to do that.”

As far as to substitute teaching, district leaders say, they haven’t had a significant problem yet. “Toward the end of last year, there were days when we did not have sufficient numbers of substitutes to cover all the classes. and we had to shut one school down and go remote for a couple of days. I think it was right before Thanksgiving,” he said.

Meanwhile, there are questions about quarantining and the Aiken district is still waiting on guidance.

“We need is some clarification on the quarantine regulations,” Dr. Bradley said. “We are following the DHEC quarantine protocol and there are some words in their language in there that would seek some clarification on about how long the quarantine needs to be given certain circumstances,” he added.

Sporting events will be handled by the high school league’s recommendations. Leaders advise anyone who goes to a football game or another athletic to wear a mask and social distance. “The major difference between an athletic event and school is that nobody’s required to go to an athletic event. You do that at your own risk. Kids are required to go to school,” Dr. Bradley added.

A few hurdles with going fully virtual are children who may have handicaps may not have access to a therapist as they would at school, the situation would be handled on an individual basis. Also, some may not even have internet access. “We’ve put out hotspots and a number of things trying to give people an opportunity to get online by driving to a school building or some other spot. That’s a real inconvenience for parents. It’s not really effective, basically what we can do with that kind of site or download a bunch of lesson plans and studies. [It would be] very difficult to have the live face-to-face interaction, that we would like to have in a virtual program,” he added.

Meanwhile, the school board will meet Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the district headquarters to discuss new COVID data expected to be released Monday as well as quarantine protocols.