SC school mask mandate ban disrupts learning, groups say

September 21, 2021 GMT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — As the South Carolina Supreme Court mulls the legality of a state rule that effectively bans masks in most schools, health care workers and educators are renewing calls for state lawmakers to repeal the provision altogether.

Pediatricians and school nurses joined state education groups at a news conference Tuesday to warn that lawmakers’ inaction will only continue to impede in-person learning as more than 88,000 students and staff have been forced to quarantine and dozens of schools have reverted to online lessons since the start of the school year.

The Republican-controlled Legislature put the one-year provision, which prevents school districts from using state money to enforce a rule requiring masks, into the state budget earlier this year. The state was averaging 150 COVID-19 cases a day at the time.

But in the following months, a new surge driven by the highly contagious delta variant triggered thousands of new cases. Schools have recorded more than 21,000 student cases this fall so far, almost 7,000 more than they counted for all of the previous academic year.

“We want to be sure that the policymakers are no longer using yesterday’s information to make today’s decisions,” said Dr. Robert Saul, the South Carolina chapter president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The state’s Republican education superintendent, bipartisan groups of lawmakers, doctors and nurses, the state parent-teacher association, and multiple teachers groups have all opposed the state mask provision, saying it prevents locally elected school boards from deploying a critical tool in limiting the spread of the virus.

In addition to the state Supreme Court case, disability rights groups and parents of children with disabilities have also mounted a challenge to the law in federal court.

But every day the courts take to consider the cases is another day of disrupted learning for students and extra work for school staff, said Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association.

“We really can’t take another day to decide this,” East said. “We’re waiting on the Supreme Court to make a decision when we could handle this in Columbia.”

Top lawmakers have so far resisted calls to address the mask topic. Senators will return to Columbia next month for a special session on spending federal COVID-19 relief money and redistricting. House leaders have not said whether they plan to have a special session this fall.

A recent survey of nearly 13,000 households in Lexington County School District One found almost 70% of parents agreed that the school board should consider temporary mask requirements when there is high community spread, Superintendent Gregory Little said Tuesday.

Little said that although the surge in cases is starting to decline, it’s not yet clear what the district’s baseline cases will look like throughout the year.

The superintendent described the “revolving door” of students in quarantine over the weeks as “incredibly taxing and frustrating” on teachers.

Some districts that defied the state law to pass their own mask requirements are now facing lawsuits of their own. Last week, a group of parents sued the Charleston County School District over its mask rule in state court, news outlets reported. Richland One School District faces a similar suit.

As of Tuesday, 30 children were hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the South Carolina Children’s Hospital Collaborative. Nine of those patients were in critical care, and five were on ventilators.

Some children are so ill they have required ECMO, a machine that takes over the lungs to add oxygen to blood, doctors said. Three South Carolina students have died from the virus this school year.

“In a time when misinformation about COVID is more contagious than COVID, our children’s hospitals are being swamped,” said pediatrician Dr. Deborah Greenhouse.