Statewide mask order for schools by SCDHEC would be difficult to enforce and ‘next to impossible’ to write director says

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COLUMBIA, SC (WSPA) — State health leaders said a statewide order requiring masks in South Carolina public schools under their emergency authority would be difficult to enforce and ‘next to impossible’ to write.

South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) Director Dr. Edward Simmer gave an update Thursday to the state health agency’s board of directors.

Last month, the board voted unanimously to ask lawmakers to return to Columbia to reconsider Proviso 1.108 from this year’s state budget. Officials said the budget proviso bans mask mandates in South Carolina public schools.

No school district, or any of its schools, may use any funds appropriated or authorized pursuant to this act to require that its students and/or employees wear a facemask at any of its education facilities. This prohibition extends to the announcement or enforcement of any such policy.”

Proviso 1.108 (SDE: Mask Mandate Prohibition)

Dr. Simmer said he and the board’s chair sent out requests to meet with Senate and House leadership. Dr. Simmer said they met with Senate President Harvey Peeler (R-Cherokee) earlier this week.

He told board members it was a positive meeting. “We had a very good meeting with him covering a number of issues including the wearing of masks, vaccines, and how we can do other things to help the state through this process as well,” he said. He did not say whether or not President Peeler would call the Senate back to Columbia to address the proviso.

According to Dr. Simmer, as of Thursday morning, he had not heard back from House Speaker Jay Lucas (R-Darlington).

Right now, DHEC is reporting 5,865 cases of COVID-19 associated with South Carolina public and private schools. Data from the state health department also shows South Carolinians aged 11-20 are accounting for the most new cases of COVID-19 among all other age groups since mid-August. The 0-11 age group is the second highest.

A state lawmaker from the Lowcountry has urged DHEC to use it’s emergency authority to issue a statewide mask mandate in public schools as cases climb and students miss school due to quarantines.

Dr. Simmer told the board they are facing two major barriers right now. He said, “Trying to do a statewide order would be very, very difficult at best because the situation at every school district is different. Trying to write one order to fit every school district would be next to impossible.”

The second issue is enforcement he told the board. He said, “Proviso 1.108 is very clear. We can not use school district personnel or anyone funded with state funds to enforce a requirement to wear masks.”

Dr. Simmer told board members Thursday, “From a practical standpoint, if we can’t enforce the order, then it’s really not a good idea I think to issue one.”

During Thursday’s meeting Dr. Simmer it is possible they could issue a more localized order rather than a statewide order. He said, “I think it’s possible. We have not had a request for that at this point. That’s something we’d have to visit at that time. Whether a more localized order for a specific school district or specific school would have merit. I think we’d still come down to the enforcement issue. I still don’t know how we would enforce a more localized order.”

DHEC updated their school guidance last month to require universal masking in South Carolina schools.

Lawmakers are expected to return to Columbia later this month to discuss federal relief funding plans.

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