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Calls to lift ban on school mask mandates intensify; gov. says it’s up to SC General Assembly

Published: Aug. 16, 2021 at 8:20 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 16, 2021 at 8:27 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Educators, lawmakers, doctors, and parents are writing letters, signing petitions, and showing up to meetings to express their concern with the lack of mask mandates at South Carolina public schools. However, the governor says what many are asking him to do isn’t within his power.

“The law is the law, we must be careful, we must be smart, but parents know what’s best for the children,” Governor McMaster said. “Under the state law, the school district can’t enforce such a mandate.”

McMaster’s says he doesn’t have the authority to suspend Proviso 1.108, which passed in June when lawmakers passed the state budget.

The Proviso states, “No school district, or any of its schools, may use any funds appropriated or authorized pursuant to this act to require that its students and/or employees wear a facemask at any of its education facilities.”

But some areas in the state like Richland County and the City of Columbia have taken it upon themselves to pass mask mandates in schools, even though there is a chance that it will face legal challenges.

“The choice to do nothing, to allow the status quo to remain in regards to safety measures in schools, that leads directly to sick children, leads directly to sick educator, and leads directly to closed schools,” said Patrick Kelly, Palmetto State Teachers Association Director for Government Affairs.

On Monday, the PSTA sent a letter to the Governor saying the best way for students to be learning in-person for five days a week, as the Governor has long said he wants to happen, is to allow districts to mandate masks if they want to.

The group also said that while the Governor can act quickly, the General Assembly also needs to use its power to remove the ban on mask mandates.

“Giving local districts control of this issue is supported by the overwhelming majority of our members, and it allows a local school board greater capacity to respond to their unique community health conditions,” the PSTA wrote in their letter.

The same day as the PSTA wrote their letter, SC School Board Association released a statement calling on the General Assembly to give the power to enact a mask mandate back to the districts.

“Treating this pandemic responsibly and keeping kids in schools is the top priority of local school districts. The Legislature should step back and let them do their job!” said Scott Price, SCSBA executive director.

Physicians are also trying to amplify the same message and are circulating a petition with hundreds of signatures calling for a change to this temporary law. Kelly says the evidence that a lack of masking is dangerous can be seen in the districts that have already welcomed back students.

In the Pickens County School District, almost 700 students and teachers were in quarantine as of last Friday due to possible exposure to COVID-19.

The district’s board made the decision to go all virtual for a week, which led some parents and students to protest the closures Monday.

“For Pickens County, after only nine days to feel they had to go to full virtual option for a week...that shows us what we are trying to do isn’t working,” Kelly said.

Kershaw County School District has almost 900 students in quarantine, according to their online dashboard.

Kelly said with more schools starting classes this week and next, without a change in state law students will suffer.

“I don’t want to teach in a mask. I don’t want my daughters to wear masks at school, I’d prefer them not to have to. But I’m far more interested in them being able to return to school safely, that’s the choice we have right now. We don’t get to choose both,” Kelly said.

But the governor isn’t wavering. He says students still have the option to mask up in class if they want, but it shouldn’t be a requirement.

“Governor McMaster’s position remains unchanged – a parent has the ultimate expertise when it comes to the health and safety of their families, and it should be a parent’s decision alone that determines whether their child wears a facemask at school,” McMaster spokesperson Brian Symmes said.

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