SC law forbids mask mandates in public schools, but other mitigation strategies remain

Published: Jul. 26, 2021 at 8:00 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Summer break is just about over for South Carolina students, and many teachers are already prepping their classrooms for the year ahead.

But with the delta variant of the coronavirus spreading and cases on the rise, outbreaks caused by a return to face-to-face learning is concerning some parents and teachers.

“Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be a huge experiment for the first month of school to find out -- did we need masks? Did we not need masks?” said SC Education Association President Sherry East.

However, mask mandates are not an option for South Carolina public schools for the 2021-2022 school year.

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According to a section of the state budget, masks can’t be required if public schools want to keep their funding. But, other COVID-19 protections are allowed.

“The vast majority of CDC and DHEC-recommended mitigation strategies for operating at school can and will be enforced this school year,” said SC Department of Education Spokesperson Ryan Brown.

Brown said every school district was required to submit a school reopening plan over the summer. Those included plans for isolating, contact tracing, and quarantining if a positive COVID-19 case is detected.

“We know the strategies that work and school districts should continue to carry them out to the extent possible,” Brown said. “But how quickly some of these variants spread, and the COVID-19 virus spreads, in a much more normal, fully in-person operation remains to be seen. We are cautiously optimistic but we will closely be monitoring that progress as the school year takes place.”

Kershaw County School District Superintendent Dr. Shane Robbins shares Brown’s optimism for the upcoming school year.

“You know until about a week or two ago, maybe three weeks ago, when we really started talking about the delta variant -- it was 100% optimistic,” Robbins said. “I’m very optimistic, to be honest with you.”

Kershaw County was where some of the first COVID-19 cases were detected in South Carolina and Robbins said the region has come a long way since then.

“In terms of opening and what we are doing operationally, honestly, we are a little more aggressive at getting things to move back to a quasi-normal,” he said.

Kershaw Schools plan to check student’s and staff’s temperatures before they go to class, have an isolation and contact tracing plan in place, and will be regularly cleaning and sanitizing their buildings.

“The tertiary or final approach would be going to a virtual environment again,” Robbins explained. “We are prepared to do that if we need to but that is the worst-case scenario.”

East said while the lack of mask mandates is a concern, a lot of her members are worried social distancing will be extremely difficult with more students learning in person.

“COVID is not gone from our world and we have a teacher shortage,” East said.

She said the state has had a teacher shortage for five years, but she is concerned unfilled vacancies will force teachers to combine classes and not be able to keep students more than three feet apart.

Brown said he understands the concern, but that problem has been building up since before the pandemic.

“The fact remains that you have to have the workforce in place to do [social distancing] and some areas are more fortunate than others,” Brown said. “In some areas, a larger classroom is a reality that we are just going to have to work to address in a COVID environment and otherwise.”

To read your school district reopening plans, click or tap here.

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