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SC News

More SC School Districts Consider Flouting Mask Mandate Ban

SC Attorney General Alan Wilson
Meg Kinnard/AP
/
AP
FILE - In this April 30, 2021 file photo, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson speaks to attendees at the Richland County GOP convention in Columbia, S.C. The University of South Carolina can't lawfully require students and staff to wear face coverings on campus this fall, despite increasing cases of coronavirus, thanks to recent legislative action, according to the state's top prosecutor. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

With hundreds of South Carolina students already quarantined for COVID-19 at the start of the fall semester, some local governments are considering joining the capital city of Columbia in requiring masks in schools despite a state budget proviso that bans districts from doing so without risking funding.

Richland County Council is expected to vote Monday evening on an emergency ordinance to require masks in public and private schools as well as day cares in county limits. The proposed ordinance states that schools won't be required to use public funding to provide face coverings.

The county could follow in the footsteps of Columbia leaders who have already made masks mandatory for schoolchildren too young to receive the coronavirus vaccine — a move that state Attorney General Alan Wilson has opined is " in conflict with state law and should either be rescinded or amended." Charleston city councilmembers also discussed the possibility of enforcing masks in schools last week.

A group that represents South Carolina public school teachers said Monday that Gov. Henry McMaster should declare a state of emergency and suspend the state budget proviso that went into effect July 1 and prohibits South Carolina educational institutions from using appropriated funds to mandate masks. The Palmetto State Teachers Association also wants state lawmakers to reconvene before their scheduled mid-September return to repeal the measure.

But without state-level action — the Republican governor has repeatedly insisted mask-wearing should be left for parents to decide — school districts need to take matters in their own hands and implement mitigation measures to keep children in classrooms, the group said.

Though no school district has yet to publicly defy the Legislature and require masks, teachers are reporting that some officials also aren't enforcing other public health strategies such as putting students into cohorts or routinely testing for asymptomatic cases, according to the association.

"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.

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.

Greenville County Schools, South Carolina's largest with an enrollment of more than 70,000, is watching the situation in nearby Pickens closely as classes are set to begin Tuesday, according to district spokesman Tim Waller.

"Our process going into the school year will be any decisions made to shift to eLearning will be on a school-by-school basis determined by analysis of each school's data," Waller said in a statement. "We are looking forward to a great year and will do everything in our power to keep students and staff safe."

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