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More South Carolina schools set to flout mask mandate ban

August 17, 2021 GMT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — With hundreds of South Carolina students already quarantined for COVID-19 at the start of the fall semester, the state’s second-largest public school district will require masks in schools despite a state budget proviso that bans districts from doing so without risking funding.

Charleston County School District’s board voted 8-1 Monday evening to approve an emergency ordinance to require masks for anyone who enters school buildings through mid-October. Board Chair Eric Mack said the ordinance was proposed for the safety of students and staff given the rapid spread of the delta variant.

The district serving nearly 50,000 students is the first school board to openly flout the state budget proviso that went into effect July 1 and prohibits South Carolina educational institutions from using appropriated funds to mandate masks.

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A similar vote was cast by Richland County Council earlier Monday; that ordinance will require masks for students and educators who serve children ages 2 through 14 in public and private schools and day cares in the county. The Charleston City Council is scheduled to vote on its own school mask rule Tuesday.

Columbia leaders made masks mandatory for schoolchildren in the capital city too young to receive the coronavirus vaccine earlier this month. State Attorney General Alan Wilson has opined the move is “ in conflict with state law and should either be rescinded or amended,” though Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin has said the measure relies on local funds, not state appropriations.

Education groups are pushing for state lawmakers to repeal the state budget proviso. South Carolina House Democrats want Gov. Henry McMaster to reconvene the General Assembly for an emergency session as well, a call echoed by a bipartisan group of senators to Senate President Harvey Peeler Monday.

But without state-level action — the Republican governor has repeatedly insisted mask-wearing should be left for parents to decide, and top legislative leaders also consider the Columbia ordinance a violation of the proviso — school districts need to take matters in their own hands and implement mitigation measures to keep children in classrooms, The Palmetto State Teachers Association said.

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“If the Governor and legislature will not take immediate action, local school districts should take bold and decisive action to employ any and all mitigation measures they believe are needed in their community, regardless of any potential financial costs,” the teacher group said in a statement. “At this moment, the cost of inaction for student health and development is infinitely greater.”

McMaster has throughout the pandemic declined to institute statewide mask requirements and emphasized the need for South Carolinians to take personal responsibility in following public health guidelines. The former state prosecutor said last month that schools can’t get through any hypothetical loopholes by using other funding to enforce a mask mandate.

A top state health official said last week that South Carolina’s current virus trajectory makes school outbreaks inevitable, as the highly contagious delta variant has spurred cases toward levels not seen since the height of the pandemic last winter.

Other districts are grappling with how to keep students in classrooms without being able to implement one of public health’s most effective tools against the spread of the virus, as federal officials recommended masking in schools regardless of vaccination status earlier this summer.

The South Carolina School Boards Association said Monday that it also wants lawmakers to rescind a different proviso capping virtual enrollment to 5% of students in each district, another measure that the group says has impaired the ability of school boards to keep students safe.

“For us, it’s not about whether or not masks are required in schools, or if virtual learning should be an option at this time,” Scott Price, the association’s executive director, said in a statement. “It is, however, about who is best positioned to monitor and modify safety protocol and make the best decisions to keeps students and employees safe – your local school board.”

In Pickens County, the school district moved to all-virtual classes last week after a rash of cases led to hundreds of students quarantined within the first two weeks of the fall semester. That prompted some parents and students to protest the suspension of in-person learning Monday, The Greenville News reported.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.

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Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.