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SC Health Board Joins Groups Asking to End School Mask Ban

Henry McMaster, Linda Bell COVID-19 AP File
Meg Kinnard/AP
FILE -In this Wednesday, July 29, 2020, file photo, South Carolina state epidemiologist Linda Bell, right, speaks during a COVID-19 briefing, as Gov. Henry McMaster, background left, looks on in West Columbia, S.C. As South Carolina battles an unchecked rise in COVID-19 cases spurred on by the delta variant and dwindling demand for vaccines, on Wednesday, July 28, 2021, state health officials urged people to follow new federal guidance on wearing masks indoors.

South Carolina's health agency became the latest group Friday to ask lawmakers to make it clear that school districts can require students to wear masks without losing state budget money or any other penalties.

The General Assembly put the mask ban item into the budget in early June when South Carolina was seeing an average of 150 COVID-19 cases a day. Ten weeks later, the state is seeing about 3,520 new cases each day.

And that dire new case average comes before about 700,000 public school students completed their first week back in classrooms. Of the more than 5,200 new COVID-19 cases reported Friday, more than 500 were in children age 10 and under.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control Board voted unanimously Friday to ask the House and Senate to come back in special session to "provide local authority for mask mandates."

They joined the Republican state education superintendent, House Democrats, teacher groups, an association of school board members, a group of two Democratic and two Republican state senators, several school boards and other groups that have asked lawmakers to reconsider the mask ban.

So far, House and Senate leaders have not responded. House Speaker Jay Lucas' office Friday said it had no comment. Senate President Harvey Peeler's office didn't respond to a message from The Associated Press, but Peeler told The Post and Courier on Tuesday there wasn't enough support to lift the ban, especially if it had to overcome a governor's veto.

Gov. Henry McMaster has repeated throughout the summer he is against requiring masks in schools, saying parents should decide individually.

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

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

McMaster continues to urge people to get vaccinated and DHEC Director Dr. Edward Simmer repeated at Friday's meeting that is the best defense against COVID-19.

But children under 12 can't get the shots, which covers most students in sixth grade or below. And only about 20% of the remaining public school students are fully vaccinated, Simmer said.

"Strictly from a public health standpoint the best way to protect our children is to require the use of masks by everyone in a school," Simmer said.

Simmer brought out two of the most public faces his agency has had during the pandemic — State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell and Public Health Director Dr. Brannon Traxler — for a presentation before the DHEC board's unanimous vote.

Bell showed studies that masks prevented COVID-19 outbreaks in schools last year and models that predict with the delta variant that more easily infects children some 90% of students could be infected without masks in the current environment.

Traxler shared research that masks don't reduce the amount of oxygen children breathe in and students can continue to gather information without seeing the mouths of their teachers.

"Children can see gestures in eyes regardless of mouths and those show emotions — as well as hear words and tone of voice," Traxler said.

The mask ban is now being tied up in court. State Attorney General Alan Wilson sued Columbia on behalf of the Legislature after the city declared a COVID-19 emergency and required masks in school.

Lawyers for Richland School District 2 on Friday asked the state Supreme Court to temporarily stop any enforcement of the mask ban while the justices decide the Columbia lawsuit.

Some Republican leaders are suggesting that school officials ask or even urge parents to send their children in masks.

But Simmer said Friday research shows that requiring works a lot better than asking.

"Masks are also an effective way to reduce the risk of COVID to schools, but effectiveness is tied to compliance," Simmer said.

Some lawmakers have said the vaguely written mask ban can be circumvented if schools use federal or local money to enforce mask requirements. But that uncertainty worries districts that would appreciate definitive answers.


Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.


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