The Lexington 1 school board is delaying a request to lawmakers that asks them to reconsider allowing them to require masks in schools.
The motion considered Tuesday would have asked the S.C. Legislature to repeal a part of the state budget that denies state funding to any district that requires students to wear masks in schools. The budget was adopted ahead of the 2021-22 school year and before COVID-19 cases continued to soar across the country.
After a two-hour public hearing on Tuesday, board members didn’t reject that idea, but voted to delay consideration of the motion while they consider potential changes to the request.
Board member Kyle Guyton moved to table the motion so the district can cover more in the request than “just masks.” He also expressed concerns the motion is unlikely to lead lawmakers to change the current restrictions, since “one person can filibuster, and then it’s a moot point.”
Board chair Ann Marie Green said there is some urgency in passing the motion before the Legislature returns to Columbia for a special session at the beginning of October. After that meeting, lawmakers aren’t scheduled to meet again until early next year.
But the board voted 5-1 to table the motion for now. Board member Brent Powers was the one vote against. Green, as chair, did not vote.
The vote follows a district-wide survey that showed a majority of households — 69% — said they would support schools requiring students wear masks. A similar percentage of district employees also responded in favor of the measure.
The survey asked Lexington 1 parents as well as staff members whether they supported a mask rule during periods of high community spread, as determined by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The survey garnered responses from 12,985 households in Lexington 1, or 75% of parents and guardians in the district covering the central part of Lexington County, the district said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, many parents spoke in opposition to requiring their children to wear masks and asked the board to consider other mitigation efforts instead, while others said masks are still a necessity while the community is continuing to see high levels of community spread. One nurse said she’s continuing to treat large numbers of COVID-19 patients at a local hospital.
State budget proviso
The S.C. Legislature this year included a proviso in the state budget that effectively bans schools from requiring masks for the 2021-22 school year by denying districts the funds to enforce a mask mandate.
State and federal health agencies have recommended schools require masking to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
Amy Wood, the school district’s nursing and health director, told the board that Lexington 1 already has hit a higher number of positive cases in the first few weeks of this school year than the district saw in any week of the 2020-21 school year. This year has also seen a higher rate of spread among elementary school students, at a time when children under the age of 12 are unable to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Wood reiterated that without the ability to require masks and a cap on the number of students who can learn remotely, the only strategy the district has at its disposal is to quarantine students when they are exposed to the virus, and switch schools to an online-only model when the numbers get too high.
Green emphasized the district is not considering imposing a mask mandate at this time, but said Lexington 1 needs more tools in its toolbox to fight the continued spread of the virus.
“As a state, we have historically been resistant to strong central government in Washington, but now we have strong central government in Columbia that’s taken power away from locally elected school boards to manage our schools,” Green said.
But board member Jada Garris said even bringing up the motion risks reopening a fight that has been a point of division in the community since the district resumed classes last school year.
“I don’t know why we’re causing all this chaos, if there’s nothing we can do about it,” she said.