SC Governor issues order allowing parents to opt child out of school mask mandate

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COLUMBIA, SC (WSPA) — According to his office, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster has issued an Executive Order to allow parents to opt their child out of wearing masks in South Carolina public schools.

This comes just a few weeks after the Governor called school mask requirements ‘ridiculous.’

Per a release, the governor has directed DHEC, in consultation with the S.C. Department of Education, to develop and distribute a standardized form a parent or legal guardian may sign to opt their child out of mask requirements imposed by any public school official or public school district.

In the release the Governor wrote, “With every adult in our state having the opportunity to receive a vaccine, it goes against all logic to continue to force our children – especially our youngest children – to wear masks against their parents’ wishes. Whether a child wears a mask in school is a decision that should be left only to a student’s parents.”

We reached out to the South Carolina Department of Education for comment. Chief Communications Officer Ryan Brown said in a statement, “Due to the lateness of the Order, the legal ambiguities, and the absence of a DHEC opt out form, the state face covering guidelines will remain in effect until such time as the agency has the opportunity to confer with legal counsel and provide further guidance.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, the South Carolina Department of Education guidelines require masks on school buses and in school facilities. Their website reads, “Students and staff in South Carolina public schools must wear a face covering upon entering a school building, moving through hallways, during carpool/bus drop off or pickup, and when social distancing is not possible or optimal. Student face coverings may be removed upon teacher or administrator direction while in the classroom or during special activities outside the classroom.”

During a visit to Abner Creek Academy in Spartanburg County Monday, State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said she did not foresee a mask requirement for South Carolina schools next school year. She said, “We are hoping everything will be back to normal.”

In a statement, DHEC Director Dr. Edward Simmer said they will comply with the Governor’s order. They said their recommendations for face masks remain in place.

The full statement from state health officials:

“We are reviewing the Governor’s newest Executive Order, and will comply with the order. We respect that the Governor has to take multiple issues into account when making a decision. That said, from a public health standpoint, DHEC’s recommendations regarding COVID-19 precautions, including wearing face masks, have not changed. 

Wearing face masks and taking other precautions are important disease prevention methods that protect not only the person wearing the mask but also those around them from COVID-19.  All students, staff, and others in schools should continue to wear masks through the end of the current school year. We continue to follow the federal guidance, backed by multiple research studies, that masks are an effective and essential tool for protecting the health of all South Carolinians during this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr. Edward Simmer/Director, DHEC

The Governor’s Executive Order issued Tuesday also prohibits vaccine passports in South Carolina and restricts local mask mandates.

In a statement, Greenville County Schools responded to Tuesday’s executive order by stating that mask requirements will stay in effect while their legal counsel reviews the order.

Full statement from the district:

Schools and districts were given no preview of the Governor’s Executive Order 2021-23, issued late this afternoon, or asked how it might impact operations. The order is 15 pages long and appears to be somewhat contradictory about whether political subdivisions can continue to mandate masks. As a result, our legal counsel has been charged with reviewing the order to determine how its contents might be reconciled with the guidance and requirements of public health officials or the liability legislation that was recently passed by the SC General Assembly. That legislation specifically aligns COVID liability to the levels at which businesses and other entities follow the advice and guidance of public health officials. It is also unclear when today’s order will go into effect since in it, Governor McMaster directed DHEC and the State Department of Education to develop and distribute a standardized form for parents to opt their children out of schools’ mask mandates. To our knowledge, DHEC has not changed its guidance on wearing masks when social distancing cannot be maintained, nor has the SDE rescinded its order that students wear masks on buses and when entering and leaving school building. As a result, districts are faced with conflicting direction from State entities. The press release issued by the Governor’s office quoted him as saying, “We have known for months that our schools are some of the safest places when it comes to COVID-19,” but his quote does not appear to recognize what role masks may have played in ensuring that safe environment.

If it is determined that the Governor’s executive order is binding and carries the weight of law, GCS will follow its directions related to masks just as soon as the SDE and DHEC distribute the parent opt-out form. In the meantime, GCS students will still be required to wear masks on buses, when entering and leaving buildings, and whenever six feet of social distance cannot be maintained.

Greenville County Schools

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