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Richland Co. Council passes mask ordinance for Pre-K, elementary and middle schools

Published: Aug. 16, 2021 at 6:31 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 16, 2021 at 11:21 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The Richland County Council passed an ordinance that requires masks be worn indoors in public and private schools which serve 2 through 14-year-olds Monday night.

The ordinance requires all “all faculty, staff, children over the age of two, and visitors in all buildings at public and private schools or daycares whose purpose is to educate or care for children between the ages of two and fourteen to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.”

The ordinance carries a $100 fine, and Council Chair Paul Livingston clarified the fine would be for superintendents.

It impacts public and private pre-k, elementary and middle schools.

It takes effect immediately, and impacts schools in Richland School District One, Richland School District Two, and some in Lexington Richland School District Five.

The council voted almost unanimously, with only District 1 Councilman Bill Malinowski voting to oppose the measure. It comes after the Columbia City Council passed a similar ordinance earlier in August.

The city ordinance began a war of words between Mayor Steve Benjamin, Governor Henry McMaster, and State Attorney General Alan Wilson.

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McMaster and Wilson argue Columbia’s ordinance violates state law. A one-year law in the state budget prohibits districts from using state funds to enforce a mask mandate.

Benjamin argued the ordinance is a health imperative, and the city has the right to enforce it with local funds.

The Richland County ordinance cites portions of South Carolina code to lay out the council’s jurisdiction and power to act. Additionally, it states the districts will not use “public funds.”

Livingston said “public funds” are intended to be interpreted as state funds, and districts can and should use federal funding or private donations.

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

Richland School District 2′s school board voted 6-1 in a special meeting Monday afternoon to empower Superintendent Dr. Baron Davis to work with the county council on implementation of the ordinance.

Dr. Teresa Holmes, Richland 2′s board chair, said the district asked the county council to put the ordinance in place and enforce it, which she said would allow the district to still be in accordance with the proviso.

“We wanted our parents to know that we take this seriously. We’re not blind to the fact that something needs to be done, and that’s what we’re doing,” Holmes said.

Davis said he planned to immediately reach out to the Richland County Council to work through what this mandate will look like, with Richland 2′s first day of school on Wednesday.

The board also voted to direct district administration to examine subsequent legal steps and strategies regarding the proviso.

Prior to their vote, which followed an approximately 45-minute-long, closed-door discussion with lawyers, the board received an update on student and staff COVID numbers from the district’s health services coordinator, Dawn MacAdams.

MacAdams said from Aug. 1 to Aug. 16, 104 Richland 2 students and 33 employees had tested positive for COVID, while 348 students and 174 employees had been in isolation or quarantine from the start of the month until Monday because they have COVID or have been in close contact with someone who does.

“It was — what else can I say? — unbelievable that here we are, the start of school. It’s August 2021, and we’re looking like it’s August 2020, which is unbelievable to me,” Davis said. “So it’s just important and critical for us to continue to share the message, continue to share with individuals that they need to become vaccinated or get vaccinated and we need to wear masks.”

Lexington Richland 5 Board Chair Jan Hammond said state law supersedes the ordinance, and she will not ask Interim Superintendent Dr. Akil Ross to institute a mandate.

LR5 sent a statement reading:

School District Five is comprised of two counties, Richland and Lexington, with half of our schools located in each county. To provide consistency for our School District Five family, the district will continue to follow the 2021-22 budget proviso 1.108 in all of our schools, which states that no school district may require the wearing of face masks by students and staff in educational facilities.

We continue to strongly encourage students and staff to wear face masks and to consult with their individual health care providers about other mitigation measures, including the vaccine. The district has and will continue to follow all safety measures recommended by state and federal authorities related to the pandemic.

Richland School District 1′s school board voted unanimously to uphold a mask requirement Monday night.

Columbia Richland County Fire Chief Aubrey D. Jenkins said he will be working with Richland County Fire Marshals to coordinate enforcement.

He said his team will not be interacting with students, but instead educating the community and working with school leaders.

Wilson’s office sent a statement reading:

“The Legislature passed provisos prohibiting mask and vaccination mandates. We believe the rule of law should be followed.”

McMaster’s spokesperson Brian Symmes sent a statement reading:

“Whether it’s a city council or a county council trying to pass mask mandates in schools, it clearly violates state law.

That said, the governor’s position remains unchanged – a parent’s decision alone should be the deciding factor in whether their child wears a facemask in school.”

The ordinance is set to expire Oct. 15.

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