Advocate groups wary of SC governor’s mask opt-out order for schools

Coronavirus

BEAUFORT, S.C. (WSAV) – South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster is ordering schools to let parents decide if their kids should wear masks.

The executive order lets parents opt their children out of wearing masks in public schools immediately. The order also bans state and local government agencies from requiring people to show proof of vaccination in order to receive government services or access public buildings and facilities.

“We have known for months that our schools are some of the safest places when it comes to COVID-19,” McMaster said in a statement. “With every adult in our state having the opportunity to receive a vaccine, it goes against all logic to continue to force our children, especially our youngest children, to wear masks against their parent’s wishes.”

“Our response was to follow the law. An executive order is the law,” said Dr. Frank Rodriguez, superintendent of the Beaufort County School District.

Rodriguez sent out a robocall to parents Tuesday night and started accepting parent’s letters excusing kids from wearing masks in class this morning.

“We still have mitigation strategies that are in place, and moves to keep the learning environment as safe as possible,” said Rodriguez. “Masks were a part of that, but with the executive order, they no longer are. So we will just rely on the other existing mitigation strategies and recommendations that we can follow to the extent possible.”

State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman is dropping the rule, effective immediately, but not without argument.

Spearman said McMaster has “no legal grounds” to issue or enforce the executive order, and he has “been successful in his mission of circumventing public health guidance by inciting hysteria and sowing division in the waning days of the school year.”

State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman’s letter to districts

It’s a decision that has sparked controversy among some who work or have kids in class.

“We deserve leaders that are solving problems not creating problems,” said Jodie Srutek of STAND for Students, an advocacy group for public education. “And this executive order creates a lot more problems than it solves.”

Srutek says she got several calls from confused parents after the governor’s announcement. They all wanted to know what they should do, and what kids have to wear for school in the morning.

“We see how the governor has decided to act prematurely without regard for the consequences of the decision that he makes,” said Srutek.

“Now, we have teachers and administrators scrambling to make all these accommodations for students at the school instead of just following the plan and leaving this until the next school year and coming up with a comprehensive plan that is in line with DHEC, the CDC American Society of Pediatrics.”

“It’s created a nightmare in schools that didn’t have to exist,” said Patrick Kelly, of the Palmetto State Teacher’s Association.

Kelly says the plan was released at the “worst time possible” for schools.

“What the governor did by issuing an executive order at 5 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon is set schools up for failure,” said Kelly.

Kelly says some districts were doing standardized tests first thing in the morning. Others had school board meetings at the exact time the decision was made.

“At a time where we should be dedicating every available second and moment to student instruction and student support, we have got human resources and staff that are involved in trying to navigate an executive order that the governor issued in the waning days of the school year,” said Kelly.

Kelly added that making this announcement now, and not giving schools time to adjust, added confusion and tension where there wasn’t tension before, and it is taking away from the education of students.

“He talked about wanting to empower parents, but he’s actually done the opposite,” Kelly continued. “Because parents had already been empowered by the districts, now that every district is offering an in-person learning model. Every family could decide if they wanted their child to learn in person or at home based on their understanding of what the health requirements and guidelines would be within school buildings.

“Families that opted for in-person learning did so with the understanding schools would comply with public health guidance from agencies like DHEC. Now the governor has circumvented all that, and those families that made that choice find themselves with no real option.”

The executive order does not apply to school buses. Students are under a federal order to continue wearing masks there.

Parents will need to complete a form to provide consent for their child to opt-out.

The form includes an acknowledgment of the DHEC and CDC’s recommendation that students wear face coverings in the school environment to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

The Beaufort County School District had been working with Beaufort Memorial Hospital on a vaccination event for their students 16 and older.

Now that the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for 12-15-year-olds, the school system is working on adding that group to the eligible list.

They hope to have multiple sites available in the next few weeks.

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