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South Carolina News
See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

SC Education Chief: Governor 'Inciting Hysteria' By Allowing Mask Opt-Out

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina's public schools chief on Wednesday said that the state's governor had no legal basis for allowing parents to opt their children out of wearing masks in schools, writing that Gov. Henry McMaster is "inciting hysteria and sowing division” as the school year ends.

In guidance sent to state education superintendents on Wednesday, education officials said the agency could find “no legal grounds” for the governor to set aside a policy instituted by another constitutional officer, under his or her own powers and not due to an emergency declaration.

On Tuesday, the governor issued an executive order letting parents opt their children out of wearing masks in public schools, citing widespread coronavirus vaccine access for adults across the state.

In response, education officials said that state Superintendent Molly Spearman had opted to rescind a face-covering policy, with an exception of a federally instituted school bus mask mandate, “rather than wage a debate over constitutionality that would pit elected officials, students, and families against one another.”

Guidance had required that students, teachers and staff wear face coverings while entering school buildings, moving through hallways and other instances where social distancing is not possible or optimal.

Education officials also wrote that they “continue to urge schools and districts to follow DHEC's public health guidance as they have throughout the pandemic.”

On a media call Wednesday, Spearman said she “did not speak with the governor” before he issued the order but that she told his staff not to issue it.

Brian Symmes, a spokesman for McMaster, said the governor appreciated “the cooperation and willingness to follow the law” from state education officials.

Earlier Wednesday, state health officials released an opt-out form for parents to use if they wished for their children to be allowed to go mask-free at schools where such coverings are required. In posting the form, the Department of Health and Environmental Control also expressed its own split from the governor's decision, noting: "All students, staff and others in schools should continue to wear masks through the end of the current school year.”

At least one school district, Lexington-Richland 5, has removed its mask mandate this week, even after school board members learned employees were threatening to sue, The State newspaper reported.

McMaster's order also banned state and local government agencies from requiring people to show proof of vaccination in order to receive government services or access public buildings and facilities as well. It also limited local governments from issuing mask ordinances based on his prior emergency declarations related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those governments will have to find justification for such mask rules within their own ordinances.

“Everybody knows what we need to do to stay safe — including wearing a mask if you’re at risk of exposing others — but we must move past the time of governments dictating when and where South Carolinians are required to wear a mask,” McMaster said Tuesday. “Maintaining the status quo ignores all of the great progress we’ve made.”

McMaster himself never implemented a statewide mask rule, instead calling on South Carolinians to show personal responsibility in practicing social distancing and other public health guidelines.