Districts can easily circumvent mask mandate ban, Horry County senator says

Grand Strand

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) – South Carolina school districts can use COVID-19 relief funds to hire part-time staff to enforce a mask mandate, according to Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry County.

Hembree, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the state budget proviso banning mask mandates in schools only specifies that districts cannot use state funding to implement, communicate or enforce a mandate.

“This isn’t a commentary on it,” he said. “It is simply saying that if a local school district wants to do it, there is a way to do it.”

South Carolina school districts receive 45% of their budgets from the state. Another 45% are local funds, and 10% comes from federal monies. Hembree said that COVID-19 relief funds can be used to implement a mandate, produce signage, communicate with parents and for enforcement.

He recommends hiring part-time employees, preferable retired firefighters or health workers, to act as enforcers at schools.

“I don’t think they’ll be real busy,” he said. “I think once the word goes out, it will take care of itself.”

Hembree said he is not giving commentary on masks, but that schools have to use the right pot of money to get around the ban. 

Teachers, for example, are paid mostly with state money.

“I instruct my teachers – your job is not to enforce a mask mandate, your job is to teach our children and do the other things that teachers do,” he said. “I think you have to be very intentional in how you carry it out to not run afoul of that, but I certainly think it is easy to do.”

In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended masks for K-12 students when schools resumed in the fall. 

COVID-19 cases increased exponentially at the beginning of the academic year. At one point, 26% of Horry County Schools students were in quarantine, and Loris Middle School, Conway High School, Aynor Middle School, Ten Oaks Middle School and Whittemore Park Middle School temporarily shifted to online learning due to outbreaks.

Other areas, like the Charleston and Richland county school districts, defied the proviso and implemented their own mandates. The American Civil Liberties Union has also sued over the ban.

Hembree said there are hundreds of specialty amendments added to the state budget every year. The state house and senate make separate versions of the budget, which are then sent to a committee for a compromise. He said the committee has a lot of control over the process, and that’s how the proviso got through.

Looking back, he said it was “probably not a good idea,” and that the General Assembly is not equipped to manage the pandemic, but that case numbers were promising at the time.

“We thought we were done with it,” he said.

Going back to reverse it, Hembree said, would be pointless political theater. He doubts the ban will be eliminated, and said that the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, or the governor, has the ability to override it. 

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