Anti-mask SC parents are altering students’ opt-out forms, sparking SLED review

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Some parents upset about having to sign a liability waiver before their children can go unmasked at school are altering the state health department’s consent form in possible violation of the law, officials said.

S.C. Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown said he’d heard of some parents using computer software to edit the form and remove portions they disagreed with. Others have just crossed out portions not to their liking and submitted marked up versions of the form, he said.

While modifying the form — which the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control created last week at the governor’s request — may seem like a harmless political statement, it’s also raised legal questions.

DHEC spokesman Cristi Moore said parents who want their child to go mask-free in schools with a mask requirement must complete and return the agency’s standardized form.

“The form, without any edits, should be sent to the school,” she said. “Any modified forms are invalid, and schools should not accept them.”

Moore said the agency had alerted law enforcement officials of an instance in Charleston County where a parent had submitted an edited version of the form, but could not immediately say which district or school the student attended.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division confirmed Wednesday it had received a report from state health officials and was reviewing the matter.

“DHEC submitted information to SLED regarding someone from Charleston County who reportedly modified the mask opt out form,” state police spokesman Tommy Crosby said in an email. “SLED is reviewing the information provided to determine if a criminal investigation is warranted.”

Charleston County School District spokesman Andy Pruitt said he knew the district had received some opt out forms that were incomplete or had sections crossed out, and at least two that were digitally altered.

He couldn’t say whether the altered forms were submitted by one parent for two children or by two separate parents, but said the district had not accepted either form.

“(District officials) addressed it and eventually received the signed unaltered forms,” Pruitt said.

He said he didn’t know whether the district had reported the cases to DHEC or SLED, or taken any action against the parent or parents who submitted the forms.

About 15% of Charleston County School District’s in-person students have opted out of wearing masks, Pruitt said.

Parents in most districts have had the option to let their children attend school mask-free since last week when Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order prohibiting school districts and local governments from requiring students or residents to wear facial coverings.

The S.C. Department of Education rescinded its mask requirement for students and school staff the following morning, claiming it was now unenforceable, but chided McMaster for “inciting hysteria” and “sowing division” with his order.

The governor’s order, which sent districts scrambling to understand its ramifications and craft a response, directed DHEC to develop and distribute a consent form that parents could sign to opt their children out of masking requirements imposed by public schools.

The consent form, which DHEC quickly created and posted online, advises parents that both state health officials and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend wearing face coverings to slow the spread of COVID-19 based on scientific evidence and research studies. Failing to wear a mask may increase a child’s risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus, the form warns.

Parents who sign the opt out form agree to release the school, district, state Department of Education and DHEC from any liability associated with the student not wearing a mask and agree they are not immune from liability that stems from their child going unmasked.

The form doesn’t specify what sort of liability parents of unmasked children might face, but some appear to have interpreted its language to mean they could be sued if their maskless child infects someone with COVID-19.

“I accept risk for my child but refuse to take blame for other children,” one Facebook poster wrote. “It is a litigious world we live in and I feel like this opens the doors to a ton of bad possibilities.”

Other parents who oppose school mask requirements have taken to social media to question what legal rights they may relinquish by signing an opt out form.

“Why do parents need to fill out a form to exercise a basic freedom? Why does it have to be a form from DHEC?” one Facebook poster commented. “They have too much power as it is, and they are a regulatory agency, not a legislative body. Legally, parents can create their own form or permission slip to give to the teachers.”

The controversy over the altered forms underscores the sense of confusion and tension that parents, students and teachers on both sides of the mask debate are feeling as they navigate the final few weeks of the school year without a strict mask requirement in place.

“Parents on both sides are angry, kids on both sides are angry, teachers are angry,” said Brown, the Education spokesman. “There’s still a lot of confusion. What a district in one county is doing is different than another district in the same county.”

He said he believed every district in the state was still encouraging mask wearing, but that only a couple were still requiring it.

Most are either allowing parents to sign the opt out form on behalf of their children or are allowing students to discard masks without formal parental consent. Richland 1 and Richland 2 are the only districts in the state known to still be requiring masks, in direct conflict with the governor’s order, Brown said.

Concerned about parents modifying mask opt out forms or simply creating their own, DHEC on Wednesday emailed school officials a memo with the subject line “Altered Mask Opt-Out Forms” advising them to be on the lookout for edited forms.

Examples of form modifications addressed in the memo, written by the agency’s COVID-19 response schools coordinator and shared with The State, are:

Stricken-through language

Replacement words or phrases (i.e. from “I understand and agree” to “I understand and disagree”)

Inserted words (i.e from “I have signed this form freely and...” to “I have not signed this form freely”)

Deleted words or phrases

“Modifications that may occur may be easily recognized or subtle and easy to overlook,” the memo said.