South Carolina's Richland County considering school mask mandate

With South Carolina's 760,000 public school students returning to classes by the end of next week, a legal showdown is emerging between the state and local officials over requiring masks be worn in schools.

It isn’t school boards that are most prominent in considering proposals to buck state-imposed prohibitions against mask mandates, but city and county governments, including a mask mandate for local schools adopted by the Columbia City Council on Aug. 5.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin declared a state of emergency Aug. 4 and asked the city council to approve a mandatory mask order, which it did the following day in a 5-1 vote.

Under the 61-day order, all 43 elementary and middle schools and day cares in the city require students, faculty, staff and visitors to wear masks. Violators face $100 fines.

Columbia was the first local government in South Carolina since July’s pandemic surge to adopt a mask mandate covering schools. Now Richland County, which includes Columbia and the affected school districts, also could do so.

“Richland County is carefully monitoring the recent surge in coronavirus delta variant cases,” Richland County Council Chair Paul Livingston said Tuesday. “Our Emergency Services and Administration departments track daily COVID-19 numbers and monitor hospital activity so that the administrator and council can make fully informed decisions regarding the safety of the citizens of Richland County.”

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson is reviewing Columbia’s school mask mandate and is expected to issue an opinion soon.

In an Aug. 2 opinion, Wilson determined a June 30 mandatory mask policy adopted by the University of South Carolina ran afoul of an amendment attached to the state budget that bans K-12 public schools from imposing mask and vaccine requirements on students, faculty and staff.

That may not be the same case if cities and counties do so, at least according to Benjamin and the Columbia City Council.

Among guidance the Richland County Council is considering is the Aug. 6 joint statement issued by the South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control (DHEC) and the Department of Education (DOE) that said students should wear masks while attending school.

“Masks are safe, do not interfere with learning and have provided no barrier to socialization,” the joint release said.

“Any decision to require masks in (Richland County), in schools or otherwise, must be done prudently,” Livingston said, acknowledging there could be financial and political repercussions if the county imposes a mask mandate for schools.

The state budget amendment “threatens the districts with loss of state funding if they attempt to enact or enforce a face mask policy,” he said. “The governor and the attorney general have stated publicly that they believe schools are prohibited from requiring face masks as a consequence of the proviso; thus, it is critical the county proceed with caution to avoid unintended and potentially devastating financial consequences to the districts, while still ensuring the safety of its citizens.”

McMaster, who issued a May executive order blocking schools and local governments from requiring face coverings, reiterated Monday that parents, not school officials nor local elected leaders, will decide whether their children wear masks in South Carolina.

“For the government to mask children, who have no choice, to protect adults, who do have a choice, is the wrong thing to do, and we’re not going to do it,” he said, claiming mandates foil common sense solutions to fighting the pandemic, which health officials are “exaggerating and engaging in hyperbole and unnecessarily alarming people.

“Football games are starting again,” McMaster said. “Classes are starting again. Now is a great time. If you are ready to get that vaccination, go ahead and get it.”

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