SC health board ‘urging’ state leadership to provide school districts with power to implement mask mandates
COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - South Carolina’s Board of Health has made its strongest push regarding masks in schools since the state legislature passed a ban on face-covering mandates over the summer, with the DHEC board now asking the state’s elected leaders to grant more local authority regarding school mask requirements.
A temporary law written in the state budget, known as a proviso, prohibits schools and districts from using state funding to enforce mask mandates, at the risk of that funding being reduced.
At its meeting Friday morning, the South Carolina Board of Health and Environmental Control voted unanimously to empower DHEC’s director and chair to “contact leadership of the South Carolina House and Senate, urging them to consider providing local decision-making authority regarding mask mandates in schools.”
The request came as DHEC reported it is tracking troubling trends in COVID numbers as the school year is getting underway. DHEC’s director, Dr. Edward Simmer, said more than 5,000 South Carolinians younger than 20 have been diagnosed with COVID in just the last week, a number he said is rising.
While DHEC is still pushing vaccines as the best way to end the pandemic, children younger than 12 still are not eligible to get the COVID shot. Meanwhile, Dr. Simmer said there isn’t much urgency for older children and teenagers to do so, reporting about 20% of South Carolinians between the ages of 12 and 19 have been fully vaccinated.
The vote followed a closed, executive session of about 40 minutes, which the board entered for legal advice.
Prior to the executive session, Dr. Simmer recommended that DHEC advise school districts to require students, staff, and visitors to wear a mask while indoors around others while also emphasizing the need for vaccinations.
Dr. Simmer also recommended DHEC adopt the same school guidance for this school year that it had during the 2020-2021 year.
“Strictly from a public health standpoint, the best way to protect our children is to require the use of masks by everyone in the school,” Dr. Simmer told the board. “Whether or not our schools are allowed to do that, I think, is a question that is an open one. I know there may well be a legal case regarding that. I’m certainly not an expert on that area, and I can’t really comment on that part.
“But certainly, I think we know from the public health standpoint and what the science shows that if we want to protect our students, and for that matter, everyone else in the school, but especially our students and keep them in school, we should require masking.”
Before Dr. Simmer made that recommendation to the board, two other DHEC leaders — Dr. Linda Bell, the state epidemiologist, and Dr. Brannon Traxler, the department’s public health director — presented research and findings from studies showing masks are effective in preventing the spread of COVID in schools and are safe for children to use.
A spokesman for Gov. Henry McMaster said in a statement that this vote does not change the governor’s stance that decisions regarding children wearing masks in schools should be left to each individual family.
“As the governor has said, we all have to work together to keep the children of our state safe, but the most effective way to do that is for adults to stop spreading the virus by getting the vaccine. The bottom line is that Governor McMaster believes parents should be making decisions about their children’s health, and nobody should be able to tell a parent that they don’t know what’s best for their child,” Brian Symmes, the governor’s communications director, wrote.
WIS also reached out to South Carolina Senate President Harvey Peeler and House Speaker Jay Lucas, asking if they plan to bring about any action in light of this stance from DHEC, but has not yet received a response.
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