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How local schools are dealing with S.C. ban on mask mandates

Published: Sep. 22, 2021 at 9:12 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 22, 2021 at 3:15 PM EDT
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FAIRFAX, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - With their hands tied when it comes to mandating masks, school districts in South Carolina are doing what they can to deal with a surge in COVID cases that’s fueled by the super-contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.

Aiken County school leaders are sending lawmakers a resolution saying the mask mandates are a local decision.

And the Allendale County School District will install air purifying devices in all schools.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control said during a COVID briefing Wednesday that lots of schools are investing in high-quality air filtration. Officials said the best measure is multiple things in addition to that. They said use of masks, vaccinations and quarantines all have to work together.

“COVID and other pathogens threaten our students, teachers, and staff,” Allendale County Superintendent Dr. Margaret Gilmore said. “After reviewing several potential solutions, we determined that Air Guardian was by far the best option for our district,” she said.

The device is mounted above a drop-celling tile and kills airborne pathogens, particles and pollutants, according to Stephen Boyd, president of Trusted Client Solutions.

Under a provision in the state budget, the district is banned like others in South Carolina from mandating masks. Despite that, Gilmore started the school year with a Facebook video stating that “all employees and all students will wear a mask on campus and on the bus.” She quickly stated that it was meant as a strong recommendation.

The district soon had to switch to virtual learning as it dealt with a wave of positive COVID tests and quarantines.

The state’s ban on mask mandates isn’t sitting well with many education leaders who say they’d require masks if they could.

“I shouldn’t be put in a position where I have to be an outlaw in order to do the right thing,” said Dr. John Bradley, Aiken County Board of Education chairman.

Many parents seem to agree. A survey by Aiken County Public Schools found two-thirds of parents support a mask mandate.

In Aiken County, more than 4,000 students are currently in quarantine. Meanwhile across the Savannah River, the comparably sized Richmond County district, where masks are required, has just over 550 students in quarantine.

The South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the ban on mask mandates, striking down a move by the city of Columbia to get around it.

Some school districts are mandating masks anyway.

The Charleston County School District says it will start sending students home if they do not wear a mask at school. Students only faced in-school virtual learning for not wearing their masks Tuesday, but officials are now taking extra steps to enforce the mask mandate.

South Carolina educators, school nurses and pediatricians are calling for state legislators to convene in a special session to repeal or modify the law that is stopping schools from enforcing mask mandates.

State health leaders report a total of 22,490 people — 20,936 students and 1,554 staff — have had to isolate this school year because they have had a confirmed or probable positive, while 88,661 people — 86,770 students and 1,891 staff — have quarantined because they have been a close contact of someone who is infected.

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