Temporary Sumter School District school mask mandate fails again, 5-4


A temporary mask mandate in Sumter School District failed once again Monday in another split vote by the district's Board of Trustees with the risk of losing funding appearing to be the continued sticking point.

The local school board's work session marked the fourth-consecutive meeting that trustees have discussed implementing a face mask requirement for students and staff, only to not pass the measure. For the third-straight meeting, a proposed, two-week mask mandate failed by a 5-4 vote.

Trustees have voted the same in all three split votes, dating back to Aug. 23. Board members Johnny Hilton, Brian Alston, Shawn Ragin and Gloria Lee voted in support of the requirement, while trustees voting down the motion included Chairwoman Barbara Jackson, Frank Baker, Daryl McGhaney, Matthew "Mac" McLeod and Sherril Ray.

Like during the board's meeting earlier this month, Hilton made a motion at the outset to add discussion and a vote on the mask mandate to the agenda.

The apparent impasse - based on board meeting discussion in open session again Monday - is a state budget amendment from this summer, specifically Proviso 1.108, that went into effect in June. It states school districts cannot use any state-controlled or state-appropriated money to implement or enforce a mask requirement for their students or faculty/staff. School districts that go against the proviso, which is a one-year law, can lose key educational funding. The proviso passed along party lines in the House.

Monday's board discussion on the matter was 23 minutes. The longest board discussion in recent meetings was 58 minutes on Aug. 23.

About seven school districts across the state (of 77 total) have implemented mask mandates, but Sumter Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox said many that have are using money from their general fund reserves to pay salaries of those staff working to enforce mask requirements and not current state funding.

According to a state Department of Education spokesman, many districts are still waiting for the South Carolina Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter. The high court has yet to rule on a related case involving Richland School District 2 and the ban on school mask mandates. The court initially heard the case on Aug. 31.


The topic of the feasibility of enforcing a district-wide mask mandate appeared to be another debatable issue among the trustees, based on the discussion. Most board members said there should not be any punitive action taken against students who refused to wear a mask in school.

Hilton, the Area 4 trustee, noted Charleston County School District has a mask mandate and students who refuse to wear a mask - except for those who decline for medical or religious reasons - are directed to virtual learning.

Area 2 Trustee Sherril Ray noted that one third of parents and students who responded to the district's recent online face mask survey were opposed to a mask mandate, and she also questioned mask enforcement strategies.

Hilton countered that the survey also showed 67% of parents were in favor of a temporary mask requirement.

"Democracy says that the majority makes the rules, so to speak," Hilton said. "The majority respects the minority, and then the minority should respect the decision of the majority. Now, that is not always the case, it is true."

When asked Tuesday for her reasoning for voting down the mask mandate, board Chairwoman Barbara Jackson didn't directly answer the question.

She did reference the resolution that the Sumter board passed at its last meeting, urging the state General Assembly to reconvene immediately and repeal the budget proviso prohibiting mask requirements. Numerous school boards across the state have passed similar resolutions in recent weeks.

But, last week, both the Senate president and the House speaker said they do not expect their chambers will likely return until November, and then it will be to take up redistricting.

A state public health department K-12 school report as of last week shows 38,107 staff and students have been isolated since the start of the school year, meaning they tested positive for COVID-19. An estimated 166,198 have been quarantined since the beginning of the school year. Those estimates are likely low because some schools did not submit data for the report.

In Sumter, through the first five weeks of school, the weekly student quarantine average total is 1,675 students, and some students have had three rounds of quarantines.

A district spokeswoman said the face mask survey was done in an effort to guide discussions by the board and administration to identify ways to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Monday night's meeting ended about 10:45 p.m.