A school board in Horry County, South Carolina, has been rattled by the COVID-19 deaths of two members within months, just as kids in the district are returning to classrooms without a mask mandate in place.
Board member Ray Winters, 50, died Monday from COVID-19, months after a board colleague, 52-year-old John Poston, perished from the deadly virus.
In a statement Tuesday, Lisa Bourcier, a spokesperson for Horry County Schools, said the school district felt a deep sense of loss for Winters, also a real estate attorney, who represented parts of Carolina Forest and Myrtle Beach, and was first elected to the school board seven years ago.
“Mr. Winters was a dedicated public servant and deeply committed to the betterment of Horry County Schools and his community,” Bourcier said. “He was a tireless advocate for public education, and we will celebrate his life and be thankful for his contributions and support of our students, their families, and our staff.”
Bourcier did not comment on whether Winters had been vaccinated against coronavirus. In South Carolina, just 54 percent of the eligible population have received at least one dose and only 46 percent are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.
In Horry County, just over half of those eligible have received a single vaccine dose even though it has been identified as one of thousands of high transmission areas by the CDC.
The state’s cases have spiked by 76 percent in two weeks.
Over the past seven days, South Carolina has averaged 3,390 cases per day, while Horry County has reported an average of 274 cases daily, according to The New York Times COVID-19 data tracker.
Winters’ fatal battle against COVID-19, comes one week after Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC) shared on Facebook that Winters was on a ventilator in the hospital and urged South Carolinians to get vaccinated.
“We’ve lost too many to name here. I pray we don’t lose Ray,” Rice wrote on Aug. 11. “Friends, please get the shot.”
Rice’s post reeled off the names of a number of high profile COVID-19-related deaths that have rattled the Myrtle Beach community that he represents, including former Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes in January and longtime Horry County GOP Chair Robert Rabon last November, among others.
Rice, who said he had hired Winters right out of law school, before he started his own firm in 2008, reported updates on behalf of Winters’ family, noting that he was “getting stronger and stronger,” before he succumbed to the virus on Monday night.
“I’m saddened to hear Ray has lost his battle with COVID-19,” Rice wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday morning. “Ray Winters was a good man. He loved God, his family and his community. His genuine kindness made a difference and touched so many of us.”
Winters’ death came just a day before Horry County students returned to in-person classes on Tuesday with no mask mandate in place—even amid an ongoing surge of the Delta variant in South Carolina.
Despite the troubling deaths and case numbers, Horry County School Board Chairman Ken Richardson told WMBF he was “cautiously optimistic” going into the new school year.
“I know what’s gonna happen on Tuesday. The kids are gonna go to school, everyone’s going to be excited,” Richardson said. “But a week later, we could have some quarantines, we could have some other things going on. But all I can do, all I can do and the board can do, is take our data that we’ve got and try to do the best we can.”
Richardson told the outlet that he believes parents should be able to choose whether or not to mask their kids, in spite of a recommendation from the CDC that has urged universal indoor masking for all staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has been unbending amid pressure from some educators, lawmakers, doctors, and parents urging him to issue mask mandates at local public schools.
South Carolina lawmakers passed a budget provision in June that bans districts from mandating masks without risking funding.
“The law is the law, we must be careful, we must be smart, but parents know what’s best for the children,” McMaster said, according to WCSC.
Even as students at school districts across the state begin quarantining due to exposure to the virus, he has insisted that parents have the ultimate expertise when it comes to deciding if their kid wears a mask.
School districts in some areas like Richland County and the City of Columbia have gone ahead with mask mandates anyway, WCSC reported. Charleston County School District’s board also approved an emergency ordinance for a mask mandate through mid-October.
Winters is survived by his wife, Tracy, and daughter Alyssa.