Lawmakers doubt K-12 mask rule will be repealed by the General Assembly


While Sumter school board's resolution to urge the General Assembly to repeal a budget amendment does create local political pressure, local legislators do not see the two chambers working together to rectify the issue.

State Sens. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, and Kevin Johnson, D-Manning, and House Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter, spoke recently on the challenge South Carolina school districts face with a one-year law passed this summer by the Legislature that bans them from implementing mask mandates or risk losing funding.

McElveen said last week he was pleased with the Sumter School District Board of Trustees resolution urging the state's General Assembly to reconvene and rescind Proviso 1.108 because it creates local pressure for action, but he also repeated what he has been saying on the issue for a month.

"I would have been in favor of coming back in the General Assembly yesterday, two weeks ago, a month ago or tomorrow to try to fix this problem," he said, "but we just can't go back in unless the Senate president calls us back in."

Also, for a special session to repeal the proviso, the House speaker would have to call that chamber in as well, McElveen added.

Then, lawmakers would need a two-thirds vote in each chamber to amend what's called a sine die agreement - a measure that sets what lawmakers can discuss after session ends in May. That would be difficult to obtain, most lawmakers say, in what has become an intense political battle related to COVID-19 and mask usage between Republicans and Democrats.

A chief opponent in South Carolina against any requirement for children to wear masks over their parents' objections is Gov. Henry McMaster.

"As long as I'm your governor, no government will be telling your child they have to wear a mask in school if you don't want them to," McMaster said recently at a Lexington County GOP meeting, according to The Post and Courier.

McElveen calls it irony that McMaster and Attorney General Alan Wilson say it's "overreach from Washington" with a recent large employer vaccine mandate from the White House.

"But, they have done the exact same thing here in South Carolina," he said. "This is all overreach out of Columbia. It's no different because that proviso is complete overreach. It's stopping local decisions from being made by local governments."

Weeks also added he thinks each school district should be able to determine for themselves if a mask mandate is appropriate, given the public health emergency.

He said McMaster could help facilitate discussions within the General Assembly on repealing the ban on mask mandates, but the governor has taken no interest on the issue. Instead, he has joined "a massive partisan bandwagon and is ignoring his own state," Weeks said.

Both senators said they wish health care professionals were leading the discussions on mask and mitigation policies.

Johnson also said the General Assembly needs to reconvene on the legislation and added that the proviso was passed in June when most people thought the nation had turned the corner on COVID-19.

He and Weeks added there are small bipartisan groups from the Legislature that want both chambers to reconvene on Proviso 1.108, but the support is just not big enough.

Johnson said the state has allowed "politics to dictate this."

"It's just the world we live in now," he said, "where pretty much everything is based on Republican versus Democrat instead of right versus wrong. That's my take on it."

Johnson added that he is even more disappointed in the state public health department for not issuing a mask mandate when it has the authority to do so.

S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control officials said they do have that authority to implement a face mask requirement but that enforcement would be an issue, and they are unsure if it would withstand a challenge from lawmakers in favor of the proviso.

State Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, chairman of the S.C. House Ways and Means Committee, did not return phone calls for comment from The Sumter Item on Monday and Tuesday.

As of Tuesday, the state Supreme Court had yet to decide on a case involving Richland School District 2 and districts implementing their own mask mandates, according to its clerk's office. The high court first heard the case on Aug. 31.