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Columbia mayor, SC governor poised for face-off over mask mandates in schools

Published: Aug. 3, 2021 at 5:29 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 3, 2021 at 10:18 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - In a City Council meeting Tuesday afternoon, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said leaders should prepare for a court battle over requiring masks in public schools within the city.

The mayor said he’s not opposed to declaring a new state of emergency due to rising COVID-19 cases. Part of that state of emergency would include a mandate for masks in public schools.

RELATED | SC reports 2,065 new COVID-19 cases, 2 deaths Tuesday

Benjamin said he would not re-enact a citywide mask mandate for everyone, since people over the age of 12 can choose to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

But he said he is worried about students younger than 12.

“It would be immoral for us not to act unless we see a significant change in the trend of these numbers,” Benjamin told the council. “We’re going in the wrong direction. And we need to decide as a community if we want to go in the right direction.”

However, a proviso in South Carolina’s budget this fiscal year appears to prevent public schools from requiring masks if they want to keep state funding.

Recently, the University of South Carolina announced it would require face masks in all buildings on campus. But then state Attorney General Alan Wilson challenged the university, saying its mandate was illegal.

RELATED | UofSC no longer requiring face masks in campus buildings

University leaders backed down and repealed the mask mandate.

Benjamin told the City Council he believes they would have jurisdiction over what happens in the city if he enacts a state of emergency to require masks in schools.

Gov. Henry McMaster’s office responded by pointing WIS to the governor’s comments last week in which he said there’s no loophole through which school districts can mandate masks and keep all their funding.

“There’s no way to have a mandate issued by a school without, one way or another, state funds because state funds permeate everything that the schools do,” the governor said at the time. “But the law says — and the legislature agreed with me when I said last April, ‘Let the parents make the decision whether they want their children to wear a mask at school,’ and the legislature agreed with me. It’s now the law, and I would advise any school district to follow the law.”

Over the weekend, McMaster told Fox News students cannot learn while wearing masks.

“We have seen what happens when these children are subjected to requiring masks -- they can’t perform, they can’t learn,” the governor said in a TV clip he tweeted. “We’ve had enough damage to the education system already by virtual learning, which didn’t work at all.”

Richland One Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon released a statement regarding Mayor Benjamin’s proposal to reinstate mask mandates saying:

“We will do everything in our power to protect the health and safety of our students and staff. That has been our priority and it continues to be our priority as we prepare for the new school year.

We will encourage our students and staff to wear masks, which public health officials advise to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. We also urge everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated to get vaccinated.”

The South Carolina Department of Education said it has no comment on this matter at this time.

Benjamin said he was also making a plea for those who are able to be vaccinated to do so, and if they don’t, to wear a mask and social distance.

“We are back in the middle of a storm — a pandemic, yes, of the unvaccinated,” the mayor said. “The challenge is our babies are unvaccinated, and if we as a community are not willing to do what is necessary to protect and keep them safe and keep them alive, then that is indeed a statement about who we are as a people.”

Benjamin has not yet declared a new state of emergency, but repeatedly said he would if new COVID-19 case numbers do not go down.

Councilmembers would need to confirm that state of emergency within 24 hours for it to go into effect, according to the mayor.

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