COLUMBIA, S.C. (WBTW) — South Carolina’s superintendent of schools made it very clear Tuesday morning that she believes local school leaders should be able to decide what’s best for the safety of students and teachers as school resumes amid another surge in the pandemic.

“I have been very clear, I do believe that this issue is best handled by local school boards,” Superintendent Molly Spearman said during a news conference In Columbia with several pediatricians and Dr. Linda Bell, the state’s top epidemiologist. “We have two ways now to make that happen. Either the Legislature comes back in, and I have asked them to do that, continually, or this ends up in court and the courts resolve it. “I disagree with the governor on this.”

The news conference came amid a flurry of school districts implementing mask requirements despite Gov. Henry’s McMaster’s attempts to block them, and the largest school district in the state — Pickens — going virtual.

While saying she agrees with local school districts who want the right to implement their own mandates, Spearman said she will continue to remind them of the current law.

“None of us wants lawlessness,” she said. “We want order. That’s what educators are about. But these are very, very difficult decisions these folks are having to make. So, I need, and have asked, as I’ve said earlier, I see two ways of this being solved. Either the Legislature comes back, and I know many of them want to do that, or this goes to court and the court settles the question for us as to who has the ultimate authority on the safety of children during a pandemic.”

Spearman said keeping schools open for in-person instruction is “crucial” because so many fell behind during the past year. On average, many students are three to five months behind where they need to be with their instruction, she said.

“We recognize that prolonged individual student absences and closures not only disrupt academic learning and the services provided by our school system, but also the local workforce, the economy, mom and dad’s ability to go to work the families rely on for their livelihoods,” Spearman said.

Spearman also urged parents to seek advice from pediatricians and other health care professionals on how to keep children safe during the pandemic.

“Folks, we’re better than this,” she said. “We’re smarter than this. Parents, please listen to your doctors. Let’s not go by what we read on social media. Let’s do what these folks are asking us to do. Get vaccinated. Send your child to school with a mask on, not just for their protection but for the community of children that they are in the classroom with.”

Dr. Robert Saul, a pediatrician from Greenwood who is also president of the South Carolina Academy of Pediatrics, said the news conference pressing for more protections for children and their families was an unprecedented step for his organization.

“We saw what happened last year during the school lockdown, during the height of the pandemic, and we do not want to see that happen again,” he said. “We want our children back in schools. However, if want them to stay in school, we must take measures to help them stay safe and healthy.”

Dr. Bell said getting vaccinated continues to be the best protection against the virus.

However, she cited statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that masks are also effective. A report earlier this year involving K-12 students showed that during a 13-week period of in-person learning, only seven of 4,872 students and none of 654 staff members got COVID in a school setting, she said.

Bell noted that numbers reported Friday by the state Department of Environmental Control showed that 141 students and 34 staff members were reported with COVID-19 within less than two weeks of returning to in-person classes.

Schools in the CDC studies complied with recommendations for layered protection and that 92% of the students wore masks and were physically distanced, she said, adding that quarantine measures and other hygiene measures were also in place.

“All of these are effective, Bell said. “They’re simple, and they are, in fact, life-saving measures. They will help protect our students and teachers and allow them to focus on learning. It’s impressive how effective the evidence-based measures are in reducing illnesses, and it inspires hope for us in South Carolina.”

Leslie Jackson of Charleston, a parent of twin boys who were born at 24 weeks in 2016 with chronic lung disease, talked about the fears her family has endured during the pandemic. Even though her boys are now healthy and attend public schools, she called COVID-19 her family’s worst nightmare.

“We don’t want our friends, families and communities to go through trauma that we had to go through,” she said. “We don’t want to see your kids gasping for air – for their breath – struggling to breathe. … We see the fight. Please wear your mask. Please get vaccinated if you can, or if you choose to. If not for yourself, do it for medical families like mine.”