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School board reviews statewide face mask requirements for students and staff

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Jennifer Hart

Jennifer Hart, chief officer of human resources and administration for the Aiken County Public School District, presents COVID-19 sick leave information to the school board. Hart answered the board's questions about how South Carolina's school face covering requirements would affect Aiken schools.

The Aiken County School Board reviewed a state requirement for face coverings for school staff and students at its Tuesday night meeting.

The South Carolina Department of Education is requiring face coverings in K-12 schools, including in school buildings and buses. The only exceptions are students who have trouble breathing, are under 2 years old, are unable to remove the mask without assistance or have special healthcare or educational needs, according to the education department's website.

Jennifer Hart, chief officer of human resources and administration at the school district, said acceptable face coverings under the rule include cloth masks. Clear plastic or glass face shields do not meet the rule's requirements.

A few board members expressed concern over whether the schools would be able to enforce face coverings. Board member Cameron Nuessle confirmed with Hart that the face covering rules would not affect the district's existing code of conduct.

Board member John Bradley said he supported schools enforcing mask-wearing.

"It's real simple. Either you wear a mask or you stay home," Bradley said.

Board member Barry Moulton said teachers are concerned that defiant students may refuse to wear a mask.

Superintendent King Laurence said a student refusing to wear a mask for non-medical reasons could be referred to the school administration, which would then contact the student's parents. Laurence suggested parents of students who refuse to wear masks may be encouraged to move to all-virtual learning.

Although the mask policy is required by the South Carolina Department of Education, the school board will not officially vote on adopting the policy until its next reading.

Other business

ACPSD teachers, food service workers, custodians and bus drivers can each have five free reusable masks if they want them, Tray Traxler, chief officer of finance for the school district, said. 

Students attending face-to-face classes will receive one reusable mask, which cost the district about $1 per mask, said Traxler.

School district employees affected by COVID-19 will have expanded sick leave, family leave and medical leave under requirements from the Families First Coronavirus Response Act , according to a presentation by Hart.

The FFCRA is comprised of two acts, the Paid Sick Leave Act and the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act.

Under the Paid Sick Leave Act, the district is required to provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave for eligible reasons. Employees can earn their full wages if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, have been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine related to COVID-19 or are staying home due to federal, state or local quarantine or self-isolation orders.

The Paid Sick Leave Act also requires partial pay, two thirds of the daily rate, for employees staying home to care for someone else experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, as well as any children whose school or childcare provider is closed for COVID-19 related reasons.

Under the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act, employees may be eligible for 10 additional weeks of partially paid leave if they have been employed for longer than 30 days. This leave is intended for employees caring for school-aged children whose schools or childcare providers are closed due to COVID-19.

In a single grouped vote, the school board unanimously approved new costs for three different school construction projects and an updated grant submission for the Head Start and Early Head Start Grant for Aiken and Barnwell counties.

All other voting items on the agenda were approved unanimously and without discussion among school board members:

The board approved changes to an administrative rule that establishes how schools deal with students who have communicable or infectious diseases.

"Administrative Rule JLCC-R Communicable/Infectious Disease establishes the basic structure for dealing with students who have communicable or infectious diseases.This administrative rule seeks to maintain a balance between the need to educate all eligible students and to control communicable diseases," reads the meeting agenda.

The board approved the designation of three weather make-up days. If school is cancelled for extreme weather, the district is required by the South Carolina Department of Education to make up the first three days of missed school days at a later date.

Due to Labor Day and the day before Thanksgiving becoming school days in the 2020-2021 calendar, the board approved partial changes in policies for staffs' vacation and holidays.

Another adopted policy was one allowing the board to arrange with other school districts the interchange of students. The policy states that the district will assume no responsibility for tuition to the receiving district when students transfer out.

Two Title IX sexual harassment policy changes, which the U.S. Department of Education announced on May 6, were adopted.

The board also approved personnel policy updates and appointments.

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