Face masks in class? McMaster lets parents decide

By Bobby Bryant, Editor

editor@newsandpress.net

The Darlington County School District’s rule that all students must wear face masks in class to fight COVID-19 is no more, and officials were scrambling to adjust. The mandatory mask rule — part of the DCSD’s strategy of containing the virus and preventing outbreaks in the two dozen schools the district operates – vanished last week as a result of an executive order by Gov. Henry McMaster. Now, parents can decide whether their children wear face masks to school. The governor’s May 11 order overrides the face-mask policies in place at all South Carolina school districts. The order, coming with only weeks remaining in the regular school year, created anger and confusion among some state and local school officials. State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman blasted McMaster for “circumventing public health guidance by inciting hysteria and sowing division in the waning days of the school year.” Sherry East, president of the S.C. Education Association, said in a statement: “We are weeks away from ending the school year, and politics have disrupted the learning environment for our students, educators, parents and communities. To Gov. McMaster: Shame on you! “Instead of working with elected leaders and medical experts, you release an executive order midweek, after school hours, and put districts in emergency mode to comply with what many would call an executive order of ‘ridiculosity.’ This has caused irreparable harm to student learning conditions.” Warren Jeffords, chairman of the Darlington County School Board, said the bottom line for the district was simple: “We will adhere to what we have to. … We will comply with what we have to comply with.” However, Jeffords added: “Personally, I would have waited until the end of the (school) year. … I would have kept it this way until the end of the year.” He emphasized that he could not speak for the entire board. School board member Charles Govan says McMaster’s decision will complicate many things. “It’s a bad idea at a bad time,” Govan said. “I think (masks) ought to be a school board’s decision, not the governor’s,” Govan said in an interview. “ … We, the district, have the information from the CDC and the medical community” to make the correct decisions on issues like masks. Govan said McMaster’s decision is “premature,” and said it could threaten the health of teachers and staff members who will be working with now-unmasked students. He also said the governor’s order will complicate plans for graduations. Last year, all graduating seniors wore face masks at the ceremonies. This year, Govan said, students are likely to feel that if they don’t have to wear masks in class, why should they do so at graduation? (All of the school district’s graduations will be outdoors.) McMaster defended his order. “We have known for months that our schools are some of the safest places when it comes to COVID-19,” the GOP governor said last week. “With every adult in our state having the opportunity to receive a vaccine, it goes against all logic to continue to force our children — especially our youngest children — to wear masks against their parents’ wishes. Whether a child wears a mask in school is a decision that should be left only to a student’s parents.” McMaster ordered the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to draw up a standardized form to let parents “opt out” of wearing a mask in school. His executive order also restricts local governments’ ability to order residents to wear masks in certain circumstances. “Everybody knows what we need to do to stay safe — including wearing a mask if you’re at risk of exposing others — but we must move past the time of governments dictating when and where South Carolinians are required to wear a mask,” McMaster said. “Maintaining the status quo ignores all of the great progress we’ve made.” By the morning after McMaster’s Tuesday-evening decision, Darlington County School District officials had put up an “alert” on the district’s website, advising parents of the governor’s actions, but saying nothing would change immediately. Not until the state Education Department and DHEC had drawn up the “opt-out” form for mask use and issued more guidance for how the changes would work. Within a few hours, the text of the DCSD’s “alert” had changed to reflect that the governor’s orders were taking effect right now. The DCSD told parents: “Gov. Henry McMaster’s Executive Order issued yesterday gives parents the ability to opt their children out of wearing masks at school. “Effective immediately, DCSD parents may download and complete the DHEC opt-out form authorizing their children to go maskless while at school. The form will be available on the district website under COVID RESOURCES. “To be valid, the form must be downloaded, completed without change by the parent or guardian (or student, if age 18 or older), and the original signed document returned to the child’s school. Students who do not have a DHEC opt-out form will still be required to wear masks on school grounds. Please note: Face coverings are still required on all school buses, as required by the federal government. “DHEC released the following statement: ‘DHEC’s recommendations regarding COVID-19 precautions, including wearing face masks, have not changed. Wearing face masks and taking other precautions are important disease prevention methods that protect not only the person wearing the mask but also those around them from COVID-19. DHEC continues to follow federal CDC guidance, backed by multiple research studies, that masks are an effective and essential tool for protecting the health of all South Carolinians during this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. All students, staff, and others in schools should continue to wear masks through the end of the current school year.’ “The DCSD will continue to require social distancing in all schools. If an unvaccinated person is less than 6 feet from a COVID-positive individual for more than 15 minutes, that person will be considered a close contact and will be required to quarantine per DHEC guidelines.”

Author: Rachel Howell

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