As a national debate on the issue continues, Sumter School District's Board of Trustees decided Monday night to not require that face masks be worn by students and teachers in schools.
In a split 5-4 vote, trustees voting for the motion, favoring a requirement, included Brian Alston, Johnny Hilton, Shawn Ragin and Gloria Lee. Board members voting down the motion included Chairwoman Barbara Jackson, Frank Baker, Daryl McGhaney, Matthew "Mac" McLeod and Sherril Ray.
Masks have been a point of contention as schools across the U.S. and state reopen amid rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, especially among young, unvaccinated people and those too young to be vaccinated. In South Carolina, a budget proviso recently passed by the General Assembly prohibits school districts from using public funds to implement a mask mandate or risk their funding being affected. The local district's current policy is that masks are "strongly encouraged," in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state public health agency guidance.
For nearly one hour in open session on Monday (58 minutes), board members discussed masks and other safety protocols in schools amid the surge in COVID-19 with the state budget rule coming up multiple times.
After receiving legal counsel in executive session behind closed doors, the board returned to open session shortly after 10 p.m. and later voted.
When contacted Tuesday by The Sumter Item for comment, Jackson - the board chair and one of the five trustees who voted down the mask requirement - only emailed through a district spokeswoman that the board had a thorough discussion in open session on the agenda item and that "trustees voted their convictions."
She declined further comment.
It marked the second consecutive meeting that the Sumter board didn't pass a face mask requirement.
The Item was also unable to reach the board's legal counsel for additional explanation on Tuesday as of 5:30 p.m.
Districts across the state are taking up mask "requirements" or "mandates" with the recent surge in COVID-19, and some also have decided not to violate the proviso from this summer.
In Charleston County School District, its board passed implementation of a mask requirement last week that will run through Oct. 15. Charleston is one of the largest districts in the state.
However, according to The Post and Courier, the school board said at its meeting Monday night that the district will not penalize students or staff members who do not wear masks in school.
Charleston continues to refer to the policy as a "mask requirement," despite the inability to enforce it.
Charleston School Board Chairman the Rev. Eric Mack used the meeting to call on the General Assembly and Gov. Henry McMaster to reconsider the budget rule that prevents the district from using public funds to implement a mask mandate.
Mack told The Post and Courier after the meeting that if state legislators remove the law, the district will institute a mask mandate that will be enforced. The current policy should not be considered a "mandate," he added.
"I understand that that proviso was done during a time when COVID levels were extremely low," he said. "Now COVID is rising. We're asking everyone to come together and help combat this COVID situation."
After the Charleston board voted last week to direct staff to implement a mask requirement, parents there heard that district principals would not have to enforce the mask requirement, resulting in confusion across the district.
MORE ON BUDGET PROVISO
On Friday, Richland School District 2 in Columbia requested the South Carolina Supreme Court issue a temporary injunction regarding the constitutionality of the ban on school mask mandates in the proviso.
The district's request is to put the temporary ban for school mask mandates on pause until a clear decision is made without districts fearing their funding being taken away.
A state Department of Education spokesman said late Tuesday that he doesn't know if the high court will act on the matter.
State Superintendent Molly Spearman has made mention of the lack of clarity in the proviso, and Sumter Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox and some board members also did so on Monday.
COVID-19 POLICIES ON WEBSITE'S HOME PAGE
Back in Sumter, in a related matter, the district on Tuesday moved links to its COVID-19 mitigation and safety protocols and its quarantine and isolation policies to the front page of its website, www.sumterschools.net, for ease of reference for parents.
District administration said Monday that if a student is directed to quarantine, after contact tracing by nurses, the school will send a letter home to parents and parents will also receive a phone call.
Also, students and staff will not be penalized if they have been directed to quarantine.
ADJUSTED DISTRICT COVID-19 TOTALS
With all schools included as of Tuesday in its counts, Sumter School District had 145 positive cases of COVID-19 through Friday afternoon to include students and staff. A total of 44 staff members had been directed to quarantine and 1,565 students. Initially released totals at the end of last week did not include Sumter High School.
The student quarantine total through Friday, to include positive cases, represents about 10% of district enrollment. Friday was the fourth day of school in the district.
According to Shelly Galloway, the district's executive director of communication and community engagement, district totals will be updated once per week.
The district is also confirming positive cases when they arise.
Similar virus and quarantine totals were being reported by districts across the state.
In neighboring Kershaw County, the school district's COVID-19 dashboard, as of Tuesday, showed 260 positive cases among students and staff and 1,274 students in quarantine. With an enrollment of about 11,000 students, the student-quarantine rate was about 11.5%.
IN OTHER NEWS
Board Facilities Committee Chairman Shawn Ragin announced that his committee will be meeting Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the district office, 1345 Wilson Hall Road. The meeting will be open to the public, but seating is limited to first come, first served.
All people wanting to attend the meeting virtually can do so via YouTube Sumter School District Board Meeting and the district's Facebook page, @SumterSCSchools.
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