On a mission to get kids in school, SC doctor says COVID not widespread in classrooms

Lyn Riddle
·4 min read

Allison Eckard was leery when Charleston County schools opened in the fall amid the raging coronavirus pandemic.

She’s a pediatric infectious disease doctor at the Medical University of South Carolina and knows all too well what kind of super spreaders kids can be for viral infections.

Based on her research from the first semester, though, she said she is pleased to say she was wrong. The data she’s studied show that with proper safety measures such as masks and social distancing, school is the safest place children can be, she said.

That’s the message Greenville County Schools Superintendent Burke Royster has espoused as well, even as some parents pushed back. So when Eckard brought her presentation to the Greenville County School Board on Tuesday, Royster felt vindicated.

All elementary and middle school students have the option to attend to school in-person full-time in Greenville County, and high school students spend 75% of their time in the classroom, the rest in virtual learning.

Across South Carolina, school districts are a mix of full-time face-to-face like Charleston County or a hybrid model like Greenville County, according to data from the South Carolina Department of Education. Broken down by schools, the data show 693 public schools have returned to full-time in-person classes, 547 are in-person between two to four days a week, and 21 are all-virtual.

Lee County has not opened for face-to-face instruction this year but is working on a plan to do so, said Ryan Brown, Department of Education spokesman.

Last Friday, Allendale County closed schools and went to virtual only after many teachers tested positive for COVID-19 or were close contacts.

COVID-19 is such a formidable and equal-opportunity infecting agent it’s hard to say with absolute certainty where a person becomes infected. But Eckard said it is apparent the disease is spreading outside of schools through social and family gatherings, not in the classroom.

The proof is not so much in what school officials are seeing, but what they’re not, Eckard said. If the virus was spreading in schools, there would be clusters of students getting sick at the same time.

That has not happened in Charleston County, she said.

Tim Waller, spokesman for Greenville County schools, said the same is true for the Upstate county’s schools.

Carpools and bus riding are more likely locations for virus spread, Eckard said.

Physicians around the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization have all released information similar to Eckard. School is overall better for children physically and emotionally as long as safety protocols are in place and followed, many health experts have said.

Eckard said the incidence of COVID-19 among high school athletes — especially basketball players — has been higher than other school groups, but her research shows the spread is coming not from the game, but from what players are doing before and after games.

“What you do outside school matters,” she said.

Several times during her presentation to the Greenville County school board, she reiterated a refrain Greenville doctors have been saying for a year: Masks work. As does staying 6 feet apart, installing Plexiglass shields between desks and grouping children in cohorts. She said some schools have upgraded ventilation systems as well.

Waller said Greenville schools and their ventilation systems are relatively new and air is circulated efficiently.

Asked by two Greenville County school board members about whether wearing face masks could be harmful to children’s development, Eckard said there is no evidence that is so.

She said in an interview Thursday she doesn’t understand the concern some people have over wearing masks.

“It is for the greater good,” she said. “This is what we can do.”

One extra benefit has come from mask wearing, she said. Cases of the flu and other seasonal illnesses are way down. She didn’t see a single case of the flu at the MUSC pediatric hospital in the fall.

Eckard said she has done about a dozen talks in schools across the state like the one she did this week in Greenville.

“I want people to believe the data, which shows that masks work,” she said.