Dorchester District 2 board members take no action on a district-wide mask mandate

Published: Sep. 27, 2021 at 10:42 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 27, 2021 at 11:52 PM EDT
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DORCHESTER COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - There will be no mask mandate in the Dorchester District Two School District.

The board chose to take no action on a mask mandate at Monday night’s meeting. Board members cited a declining number of COVID cases, legal challenges, and the additional strain it would put on teachers as reasons for passing on masks.

“We all want masks but as we continued looking through this, we realized that there are too many components that are not going to work for us to mandate it,” said board member Tanya Robinson. “We will just have to wait and see what happens for now.”

This comes after parents overwhelmingly signaled support for a mandate in a survey sent to households last week. In that survey, 72 percent of polled households said they would like a mask mandate, while the rest preferred parental choice. However, the survey had a response rate of only 64 percent.

On the staff side, 75 percent supported the idea of a mask mandate while 25 percent did not. Only 68 percent of staff members responded.

Last week, the board asked the superintendent and his team to take a deep dive into the pros and cons of a mask mandate. Superintendent Joseph Pye presented their findings without giving a specific recommendation.

The obvious pro is the potential for masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and lower the number of students in quarantine. However, Pye’s team said there would be a number of draw backs to a mandate. Pye asked how they would enforce the mandate and whether or not it would lead to teachers resigning during a time when teachers are already in high demand. His team also noted, the potential need for additional security resources after seeing parents protest outside of schools in neighboring district where mask mandates are being enforced.

The major sticking point is the state government’s budget proviso prohibiting the district from using state funds to enforce a mask policy. District leaders say that would also mean they would have to hire an outside lawyer to defend them in any court cases.

Perhaps the strongest evidence for not moving ahead with the mask mandate are the covid numbers themselves. On August 25, DHEC recorded Dorchester County’s highest covid case count of the pandemic at 239 confirmed cases. On September 25 that number shrank to just 55.

“We are not seeing an exponential rise,” said board member Justin Farnsworth. “I told you guys a couple of weeks ago, I genuinely believed by the end of this week we would have 2,000 plus kids in quarantine and we don’t.”

The decision to not move forward with a mask mandate was not the decision parents like Emily Havener wanted to see.

“I would like for masks to be mandatory,” Havener said before the meeting. “I think that a way to make everybody feel heard is to open up virtual learning to a larger percentage of the district.”

The debate over masks has been brewing for more than a month now with the district ultimately kicking the can down the road at each meeting. Parent Jason Brockert says Monday’s meeting was no different.

“My general reaction is that the board was given plenty of information and made the conscious decision to just defer to a later date,” Brockert said. “They’re literally waiting for the next crisis.”

While the board didn’t decide on masks, they did decide to encourage audience members to display better decorum during the meeting. Board Chair Gail Hughes says the meetings have gotten out of hand lately with public outbursts that disrupt business.

“We will not tolerate any kind of outburst, whether it be shouting to the speakers when speakers are talking or standing up and clapping or yelling out or vulgar language,” Hughes said. “All of those things that we have had in the past couple of months and we are not going to tolerate any of that.”

To that end, they have changed the speaking rules to allow just one person to speak for an agenda item and one person against that same item. That leaves room for other people to comment on other issues. Hughes says they have been hearing from the same people about the same issues for weeks.

They also tightened security and now require attendees to be swept with a metal detector wand and any outbursts will not be met with a swift ejection from the meeting. Those ejected can expect to be given a no trespassing notice and effectively barred from future board meetings.

Three parents were ejected at Monday’s meeting after they clapped for the first speaker. However, they were not given no trespassing notices.

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