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Richland Two to require masking in schools again following federal judge ruling

Published: Sep. 29, 2021 at 3:52 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Beginning tomorrow, Thursday, September 30, Richland School District Two will again require students and staff to wear face coverings in schools.

This comes after the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina issued a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction prohibiting the enforcement of Proviso 1.108 that limits a school district’s ability to require face masks.

After Judge Mary Geiger Lewis’ ruling, State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said districts “now have the discretionary authority to require masks.”

RELATED | Spearman: SC schools can mandate masks after judge’s ruling

R2 Superintendent Dr. Baron Davis has said he believes requiring masks would help the district fulfill its “most important obligation to families, providing a safe and healthy learning environment for all students.” However, he had not taken the step due to that temporary law in the state budget.

District leaders had been preparing for an injunction like this one for some time, though.

Last month, R2 petitioned the South Carolina Supreme Court and asked it to block enforcement of the temporary law in the state budget that banned school mask mandates.

RELATED | Richland School District 2 requests temporary injunction until clear decision is made on mask mandates

The state Supreme Court has not yet ruled on that matter, but the R2 officials had been preparing for this potential scenario since they made that filing.

RELATED | SC Supreme Court hears cases on mask mandates in schools

“It didn’t take much to ramp up what we were going to do once we got some sort of ruling,” Davis said. “We had anticipated, we had over a month to prepare for either decision, in favor or not in favor. And then we had a strategy for what we would implement.”

In a statement, the district said, “the Richland Two Board of Trustees and school district leaders are extremely grateful for the temporary restraining order issued by U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis.”

Davis said the new requirement is consistent with the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. It won’t functionally change too much for the district, as many have been masking up to this point, he said.

“At this point, it was pretty optional whether or not to wear a mask,” Davis said. “The vast majority of our students have been in compliance with our efforts to reduce the spread of COVID in schools by wearing masks. However, now it’s not on a volunteer basis.”

Enforcement will be handled by teachers and school administrators. When asked how he would handle parents who are opposed to this ruling and send their children to school without masks, Davis said it would be handled on a case-by-case basis.

“We’re going to focus on protecting our students and our staff, and if those situations occur, we’ll deal with them accordingly, based on the level of the infraction, based on the severity of the issue,” he said. “But I don’t have a set standard to say this is what I’m going to specifically for this parent if they do X or Y.”

Governor McMaster plans to appeal the ruling, but Davis says the mandate will go forward as the legal process plays out.

RELATED | Groups challenging mask mandate law feel ‘relief’ after judge temporary blocks law

“I don’t have any comment about where the state may take this case,” he said. “There’s no telling where that may end up, how long that may take. And so we’re going to continue, with the support of our board and our community we’re going to continue taking the steps we need to take to keep our students and our employees safe.”

The night before the mandate goes into effect, over 600 students are out of R2 classrooms, either due to COVID exposure or quarantine. There are currently 60 positive student cases. R2 is the fourth-largest district in the state, serving over 28,500 students.

R2 outlines that masks will be required indoors in common areas, while in classrooms, on district transportation, and while attending a school event or activity, like a sporting event or stage performance. The requirement also applies to visitors to these places.

As was the case when the mandate was in place last year, there will be exceptions for students including when:

  • Actively eating/drinking
  • During the administration of medication
  • Physical distancing is in place
  • As directed by a staff member or administrator, like during designated mask breaks

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