Lexington-Richland 5 drops mask requirement in schools as employees threaten lawsuit

·3 min read

A Midlands school district will scale back its mask mandate in school, even as board members were warned district employees are planning a lawsuit over efforts to drop the mask requirement in schools.

Starting Tuesday, students and staff in districts are “strongly encouraged,” but not required, to wear masks at school, a move that is in line with guidelines from the S.C. Department of Education.

School board members in the Chapin-Irmo area discussed the issue for the first time Monday after initially repealing its mask policy outright last week, then reversed course two days later after consulting with an attorney.

Lexington-Richland 5’s decision last week to pause the repeal of its mask policy comes after 100 school employees threatened to sue, attorney Andrea White said Monday.

Monday should have been the first day students were not required to wear masks in class at Lexington-Richland 5 schools. In a special called meeting of the school board last Tuesday, board members voted 4-2 to rescind the district’s mask requirement, leaving it up to parents to decide whether they wanted their children to wear masks.

But after consulting with an attorney, the district announced two days later that its mask policy would remain in line with requirements issued by the S.C. Department of Education.

State guidelines require students and staff in public schools to wear a mask when entering a school building, moving through hallways, during pickup and drop off, while boarding, riding and exiting buses, and when social distancing is not possible.

Students may only remove their face coverings when directed to by a teacher or administrator while in the classroom or during special activities outside the classroom, according to the policy posted on the state education department’s website.

Some parents denounced the mask requirements as burdensome, saying they hindered students’ ability to learn and interact with each other. Some who spoke at last Tuesday’s meeting claimed their children were being psychologically affected by constant masking. Others proudly said they had refused to wear masks since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some criticized the district administration for backtracking on the intent of last week’s vote without another meeting of the school board. One said the board was being “dictated to by non-elected officials.”

But other parents and teachers warned that the danger of the coronavirus spreading is still real, and that many still are not vaccinated against the disease.

At last week’s meeting, Superintendent Christina Melton said she might have to reopen the district’s online learning program for new enrollments if enough parents asked to switch because of the dropped mask policy, potentially disrupting the final weeks of the 2020-21 school year.

National and global health experts say masks are one of the main tools for stopping the spread of the coronavirus. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say even those who are fully vaccinated should still wear them in large crowds and where social distancing isn’t possible. People who aren’t fully vaccinated are advised to wear masks indoors and in crowds outdoors.

The school district’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a lightning rod for much of the school year. Some parents early on pushed for a quick return to in-person learning, and in December the school board had to scale back its reopening plan after student protests and an apparent walkout by teachers over the policy forced three high schools to close.

Two teachers on Monday told the board they would be leaving their positions at the end of the school year because, as one said, “Your actions and words have worn teachers down.”

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