Federal government takes notice of South Carolina's stance on masks in schools


U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has sent a letter to South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and Department of Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, warning against policies that prevent school districts from requiring masks.

“South Carolina’s actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) … may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by Federal law,” Cardona’s letter said.

South Carolina was one of eight states – along with Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Utah – to receive a letter Wednesday from Cardona.

McMaster responded to the letter on Twitter, not backing down on his opinion that parents should make the decision on whether their children wear a mask.

“If [President Joe Biden] put as much effort into a withdrawal plan for Afghanistan as he is trying to force masks on our children then we wouldn’t have Americans and allies stuck behind enemy lines. He’s more concerned about Republican governors than he is with the Taliban,” McMaster tweeted.

McMaster and South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson have been battling state universities, school districts and municipalities in recent weeks over mask mandates.

The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled against Wilson this week, finding that higher education entities can require masks for all students. Wilson sued the city of Columbia on Thursday over its school mask mandate.

“For the government to mask children to protect adults, who do have a choice, is the wrong thing to do and we are not going to do it,” McMaster said. “Mandating masks is not the answer. Personal responsibility is the answer.”

Spearman, however, disagrees. She said Tuesday local school boards should determine those policies and, to resolve the issues, the Legislature will have to come back into session or the dispute will need to be settled in court.

“Superintendent Spearman has been clear in her support for empowering South Carolina’s locally elected school leaders, with the input from parents and their communities, to make decisions impacting the health and well-being of the students they serve,” Ryan Brown, chief communications officer for the South Carolina Department of Education, said Thursday about Cardona’s letter.

Cardona referenced the state’s funding through the American Rescue Plan Act in his letter. South Carolina was allocated $2.1 billion in ARPA Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief with $1.4 billion received March 24 and $705 million received last week.

“This State level action against science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 appears to restrict the development of local health and safety policies and is at odds with the school district planning process embodied in the U.S. Department of Education’s (Department’s) interim final requirements,” Cardona wrote. “As you know, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP Act) requires each LEA that receives Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) funds to adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services.”

Spearman said the state hoped it could do school without masks this year, but the delta variant has changed that and, “We have statistics to show that this is spreading amongst children where it was not before.”

“Get vaccinated and send your kid to school with a mask on, not just for their protection but for the community of children that they are in the classroom with,” Spearman said.

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