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Parents urging state leaders to allow schools authority to require masks

Published: Aug. 12, 2021 at 10:54 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A group of South Carolina parents and educators are urging Gov. Henry McMaster and other state leaders to allow schools to mandate masks amid rising COVID cases and hospitalizations as students and teachers head back to school.

A temporary law in the state budget, called a proviso, prohibits schools and districts from using state funding to require masks, at the risk of losing that funding.

“This is one way to speak out, to say that the prohibition on mandating masks right now is a dangerous policy,” said Deborah Billings, who helped craft the petition.

The petition seeks to suspend the proviso for the upcoming school year, and as of Thursday evening, around 2,000 people had signed on.

Billings said she, her husband, and her son, a rising sophomore in high school, have all been vaccinated, but public health officials have said even fully vaccinated people can still transmit the virus and even get sick, though the likelihood of developing severe illness that leads to hospitalization or death is much less likely than for people who are unvaccinated.

Masking in schools is not an infringement on freedom, Billings argued, but a proven method to keep people safe as cases and hospitalizations surge.

“We are not anti-freedom,” she said. “We are pro-health and pro-caring, and freedom always includes responsibility.”

While schools are prohibited from requiring students and staff to wear masks, DHEC is strongly encouraging people to mask up at school this year.

Dr. Linda Bell, the state epidemiologist, said the combination of unmasked and unvaccinated students and teachers is “a perfect storm.”

“I see no way around outbreaks in schools with the current track that we’re taking,” Dr. Bell said. “So unless the recommended mitigation strategies, including the widespread use of masks in schools, are widely adopted, I unfortunately do anticipate that we will see higher transmission and significant outbreaks in schools.”

But Dr. Bell said that can be avoided, with measures including masking for everyone and vaccinations for those eligible, which is currently everyone age 12 and older.

She said masks don’t harm children or prevent learning or socialization but, instead, are what will allow students and teachers to safely be back in classrooms face-to-face.

“And I would ask parents to consider the fact that you should follow the guidance from your healthcare providers. When are other instances when the parent is making the decision about the treatment that is recommended for a child, a preventative measure that is recommended for a child? We know that the masks work,” Dr. Bell said.

Dr. Bell also said unvaccinated students and teachers are at a greater risk for getting COVID this school year than last year because of the delta variant.

She said a person infected with the original coronavirus strain could pass it to one to two other people, but someone infected with the delta variant is able to pass it to as many as five to eight people.

McMaster has repeatedly reiterated recently that he has no intention of changing or repealing the mask mandate proviso, saying the decision of whether to mask is one that should be made by each individual family.

Billings even said she doesn’t think this petition or others like it are going to be the key to changing state leaders’ minds.

“But also just can’t sit around, sitting on our hands,” she said. “We have to speak out. We have to be on record as saying we do not support this policy.”

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