Students no longer will need to wear masks

From The State

Starting Monday, students in schools in the Lexington-Richland 5 school district won’t be required to wear face masks in school.

The school board voted 4-2 to do away with the policy, following mounting pressure to drop the requirement that students wear masks as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.

The policy change will go into effect May 10.

Superintendent Christina Melton asked for board members to delay the change in order for district staff to prepare.

“I’ve got four draft messages I could send out tonight depending on what the board decides,” she said at one point during a special called meeting to address the mask policy Tuesday night.

Board members Nikki Gardner, Jan Hammond, Matt Hogan and Rebecca Blackburn Hines. Catherine Huddle and Ken Loveless voted against. Board member Ed White was unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting.

Hines, who made the motion to do away with the mask mandate Tuesday, said she had struggled with how best to move forward with only weeks left until schools let out for summer.

“I try to be objective for teachers, parents and staff,” Hines said. But she said when the previous board adopted its mask policy before she was elected in November, “I felt so strongly about it. It’s not about the implementation. I strongly feel our policy is overreach.”

The board members opposing the motion said they had hoped to build more flexibility into the existing policy, rather than do away with it all together. Students and faculty had been required to wear masks in schools since students returned to in-person instruction earlier this year.

Before the vote, parents spoke for and against the policy. Supporters of the mask policy were concerned the virus could still spread even with stepped up vaccinations for those over the age of 16. Others said it could affect whether teachers want to stay in their jobs next year. One teacher said she had been unable to get vaccinated because of breast cancer treatments, a condition that also puts her at higher risk of serious health effects from the coronavirus.

Opponents of the mask policy said they were uncomfortable, unsanitary and questioned their effectiveness in spreading COVID-19. Many said children were experiencing severe stress because of the masking requirements in school, which one speaker compared to experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Board chair Hammond tried to keep tempers cool during the meeting. “No one on this board is for child abuse,” she said after one particularly impassioned parent spoke against masks. “Everybody on this board cares about our students. This is a complicated issue, but on policy, it’s our job to lead.”

In recent weeks, parents had stepped up calls for students to have the choice of wearing masks while in school. Last week, Gov. Henry McMaster said continuing face mask requirements are the “height of ridiculosity” as more teachers and others have had the opportunity to get vaccinated.

The S.C. Department of Education has said it does not plan to change its requirement that students wear masks while attending in-person classes this school year.

Currently, the Education Department requires students and staff in public schools to wear a mask when entering a school building, moving through hallways, during pickup and drop off, while boarding, riding and exiting buses, and when social distancing is not possible.

Students may only remove their face coverings when directed to by a teacher or administrator while in the classroom or during special activities outside the classroom, according to the policy posted on its website.

Hammond said she had been told the school district has the ability to set its own standards inside its own schools, but that masks will still be required on school buses, which are owned by the S.C. Department of Education.

Schools are now required to offer in-person classes five days a week after the S.C. Legislature passed a school reopening act last month.

As of Tuesday, the district’s COVID-19 dashboard reported one student is out with a positive coronavirus diagnosis. No staffers have a positive diagnosis.

Four staffers and 54 students are in a precautionary quarantine.

No COVID-19 vaccine is currently approved for children under the age of 16.