New CDC guidance urges masks in schools. But SC districts can’t mandate them

·3 min read

The Centers for Disease Control issued new guidance on masks on Tuesday afternoon, including urging that everyone in K-12 schools should wear them, regardless of vaccination status.

But, because of a state law rolled into this year’s budget, it appears unlikely that school districts in South Carolina can mandate that students and teachers wear masks as the school year approaches.

The more transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19 has taken hold across the United States, and case numbers have been on the rise.

The virus has sharply spiked in South Carolina recently. In just the last four days 4,633 new cases of the virus have been reported by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. There are also now 453 COVID-19 patients in state hospital beds, a quick rise from two weeks ago when there were 192 coronavirus patients in SC hospitals.

Only 44 percent of South Carolinians are fully vaccinated against the virus, one of the worst rates in the nation.

As noted in a host of published reports, the CDC was set to update its mask guidance on Tuesday in a couple ways. One was that it is now recommending some fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas where the virus is spreading rapidly. Another key recommendation was that everyone in K-12 schools should wear masks regardless of vaccination status.

Kids under the age of 12 are not currently eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

But despite the CDC guidance, officials at South Carolina’s public education agency noted state law prohibits school districts from mandating masks, lest they lose state funding.

South Carolina Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown said Tuesday that the new CDC guidance “may play a role in DHEC’s school guidance” for the coming year, but that in terms of school operations, public schools are bound by a budget proviso passed earlier this year by the General Assembly.

“This proviso prevents school districts from requiring face coverings in schools,” Brown said. “The use of face coverings by students and staff within school facilities remains a recommendation of state and federal public health officials and the proviso does not prevent districts from encouraging the wearing of face coverings in these settings.”

But “encouraging” and “requiring” are two different things. The proviso reads as follows: “No school district, or any of its schools, may use any funds appropriated or authorized pursuant to this act to require that its students and/or employees wear a facemask at any of its education facilities. This prohibition extends to the announcement or enforcement of any such policy.”

Brown said, because of that one-year law wrapped into the budget, “there will not be any changes despite what public health recommendations may be put forth from various agencies and organizations.” The education department spokesman said neither the department nor state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman have the authority to reverse the mask decision without legislative action.

Masks have been a political flashpoint in school districts and broader society. In the Midlands there was a particularly heated battle in Lexington-Richland School District 5, where at least one board member threatened to censure now-former Superintendent Christina Melton for allegedly “undermining” the school board by requiring kids to wear masks in schools. That came after district administration followed legal advice and reversed a school board decision that had repealed the district’s mask mandate. That rift was just one bit of turmoil that preceded Melton’s resignation in June.