R1 Superintendent: District preparing for fall with and without a mask mandate

Published: Aug. 9, 2021 at 4:30 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 9, 2021 at 7:20 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Conflicting messages from the South Carolina State Budget and Columbia’s state of emergency are leaving Richland School District One’s policy on mask mandates uncertain.

A temporary rule in the budget prevents school districts from using state funds to enforce a mask mandate. Governor Henry McMaster has argued state funds permeate schools and it would be impossible to enforce a mandate without it.

READ: Here are the temporary SC laws related to COVID-19, schools, masks and vaccines

However, the Columbia City Council approved a state of emergency, which requires all pre-K, elementary and middle schools to require masks (with a religious exemption) within the city. Mayor Steve Benjamin has argued the state of emergency is a health necessity and will be enforced with city funds.

R1 Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon, while wearing a mask, told WIS he is preparing the district for a fall with or without a mask mandate.

“It does place the district in an interesting position, to say the least, but again, we’re sorting through that,” he said.

Witherspoon declined to give a stance on the issue but said this week information will begin to flow from the district about what to expect on the first day of school (Aug. 18).

“I want to emphasize, that the vast majority of our plans, they’re in place. They’re set. We do have this lingering piece that we will certainly deal with and plan accordingly. We will start those communications this week,” Witherspoon said.

Witherspoon said the district is still gathering information on the fallout of the city’s announcement, including an opinion from the state attorney general.

RELATED STORY | SC attorney general investigating Columbia mayor’s mask mandate

Witherspoon said he will be enforcing masks on buses, in health rooms, and for visitors.

He has a financial stake in the mandate, as the ordinance would subject him to a $100 fine for violations, issued by city fire marshals.

Columbia Richland County Fire Chief Aubrey D. Jenkins said his fire marshals will issue fines as a last resort, focusing instead on education.

“If we continue to get complaints, or we continue to go out and we see the same thing over and over and over again, at that point the education would have to stop, and then you’d have to start issuing citations,” he said.

He said the marshals will “strictly” interact with principals or head administrators at the schools relating to mask enforcement, not children.

Jenkins said he will be meeting with Witherspoon on Thursday to talk about a game plan. While official R1 policy remains to be seen, Jenkins said his fire marshals will be enforcing the ordinance.

“I understand the predicament that the schools are in. I can understand that, but because it’s an ordinance that has been passed by the City of Columbia has passed, unfortunately, we have to take a role in showing up,” he said.

The district board is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. at Eau Claire High School on Tuesday, Aug. 10. The public can view via livestream.

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