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Masks Required By Some South Carolina Schools In Defiance Of State Rule

A child wears a face covering while walking outside during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thomas Park
A child wears a face covering while walking outside during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A growing number of school districts in South Carolina are defying a provision from state lawmakers banning mandatory face coverings for students.

But not all are following suit. Many districts remain afraid that the General Assembly will withhold state budget money if they defy the order that was passed mostly along party lines in June, when the state was seeing 20 times fewer new COVID-19 cases.

With the latest surge of coronavirus cases upon them, some lawmakers are having second thoughts about that vote. They and many school leaders are hoping a state Supreme Court challenge to the rule will settle the issue. And yet there is no indication when the justices might rule — or that their decision will provide clarity.

“I think this is a big deal, and we need all the information on the table before we make this decision,” Beaufort County School Board member Ingrid Boatright said Monday before successfully asking the board to delay requiring masks amid the uncertainty.

School districts in Colleton, Marlboro, Chester and Florence have decided to require masks, at least for now. Charleston County schools passed a mask mandate, but then told schools they could not punish students who didn't wear face coverings.

To help districts skirt the state order, both the capital of Columbia and surrounding Richland County passed their own mask mandates for all children under 12 in schools. But some districts in the county, including Lexington-Richland 5, have rejected mask requirements for any students in school or day care.

Even if some lawmakers wanted to now repeal the ban, leaders have said there aren’t enough Republicans ready to undo the previous 71-37 vote in favor of it.

The COVID-19 pandemic was in a much different place when that vote was taken by the House on June 9: South Carolina was averaging about 150 new COVID-19 cases a day. The state is now averaging 3,600 new cases a day, a pace that shows no signs of slowing. After seeing only two or three virus-related deaths a day in midsummer, the state is now averaging 25 a day.

Attorneys for Richland School District 2 sued the state last week. They are asking Supreme Court justices to allow mask mandates immediately while they consider whether the General Assembly overstepped its authority when it included a non-monetary issue in a budget bill that is supposed to be limited to spending.

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit saying the ban on masks in South Carolina schools prevents vulnerable students from attending class and disproportionately affects those with underlying health conditions or disabilities.

Republican state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said schools should be able to require masks. She has been joined this month by the state’s health agency, pediatrician organizations, House Democrats, teachers groups, an association of school board members and a group of two Democratic and two Republican state senators, among others.

The state's most visible opponent to mask mandates is Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who has repeatedly said that parents should decide whether children wear masks. The governor has suggested that face coverings don’t stop COVID-19′s spread and harm children from learning and socializing. Public health officials nationwide have said repeatedly that masks can help stop the virus's spread.

In a presentation to the board of the Department of Health and Environmental Control last week, two top public health and infectious disease experts also noted that masks don’t reduce the amount of oxygen children breathe or prevent them from interacting with teachers and friends.

McMaster has not changed his mind.

“Parents know what impact wearing a mask in school has on those children better than anyone else,” he said in a clip sent out by his office on Twitter about five hours after the board meeting.

The governor also said in the clip that “bureaucrats in Washington” are making a drastic error with mask mandates.

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