Are we doing what’s best for our children?
That’s the question South Carolina educators, school nurses and pediatricians posed Tuesday as they joined the growing chorus of concerned parties calling on the General Assembly to repeal a budget measure that aims to prevent districts from imposing school mask requirements.
“It is a concern of ours, it is a concern of our teachers, of our school administrators, of our school board members that these children are losing learning time again,” said Kathy Maness, executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. “This mask issue does not need to be a political issue.”
Maness was among a cadre of stakeholders from the Palmetto State Teachers Association, South Carolina Education Association, South Carolina Parent Teacher Association, South Carolina Association of School Nurses and South Carolina chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics who gathered Tuesday at the South Carolina Municipal Association in Columbia to urge Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, and House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, to convene a special legislative session to revise the mask provision.
“The General Assembly is not a super school board,” she said. “They need to leave that decision to local elected officials who know what’s best for their community so that our students can stay in the classroom, so they can continue to learn and our teachers can teach.”
Schools cannot require students and staff to wear facial coverings because of a provision Republican lawmakers added to the budget in June that prevents districts from using state funds to enforce mask mandates.
The school mask measure garnered scant attention at a time when daily coronavirus cases were at their lowest point in over a year and few districts planned to require masks, but has since ignited a political firestorm with the emergence of the highly contagious delta variant.
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have exploded over the past two months, just as schools were returning for the fall semester, sparking fear and anxiety for parents and teachers.
More than 110,000 South Carolina students and school staff have been exposed to or infected with COVID-19 since August, including some who have been hospitalized or even died from virus complications.
As a result, dozens of schools and some entire districts have been forced to temporarily suspend in-person classes to curb coronavirus outbreaks, forcing teachers, students and their parents to resume virtual learning on the fly.
A bipartisan collection of state lawmakers, as well as health and education officials, have called on the Legislature to revise or repeal the anti-mask mandate measure, but Republican leaders have not given any indication they will do so.
The South Carolina Senate plans to return to session Oct. 12 to discuss redistricting and allocating millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 money, but is not expected to tackle the controversial mask measure.
With educators unable to enforce mask mandates on school grounds, local districts have struggled to keep the coronavirus in check this year, teachers and administrators said.
South Carolina has reported more COVID-19 cases among students and school employees in the first two months of this school year than were reported all of last year, according to Department of Health and Environmental Control data.
With teachers again being asked to juggle a mix of in-person and virtual learning, and with larger swaths of students than ever before missing significant classroom time due to COVID-19 infection or exposure, many school employees are burning out, Lexington 1 Superintendent Gregory Little said.
“There’s not a break. It becomes more of a revolving door,” Little said. “They’re consistently having to work with students who are not in the classroom and that is incredibly taxing and frustrating on our teaching force.”
The superintendent, who jokingly referred to the past few weeks as the longest six months of his life, said it was critical that schools have every possible tool at their disposal, including the ability to mandate masks, if necessary.
“The most important lesson we’ve learned from COVID is that we have to be flexible and adaptable in how we approach it,” he said. “It’s safe to assume that as we’ve seen wave after wave that we don’t know what the future will hold. And because we don’t know what the future will hold, what we need is to have the ability to address whatever might come our way.”
Patrick Kelly, a Richland 2 high school teacher and director of governmental affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, was more blunt in demanding a repeal of the school mask provision.
“You cannot be pro-student learning and anti-public health guidance right now,” he said. “Those are incompatible. If you are in favor of student learning and student academic growth, you must be in favor of following public health recommendations from our medical professionals.”