As COVID-19 case numbers increase throughout the Lowcountry — and following the deaths of multiple Dorchester District Two staff members from the virus — many parents are increasing pressure on public schools to implement mask mandates.
Last week, DD2 announced the deaths of staff members Beth Collins, Clair Baisley and Carla White, all of whom passed away from COVID-19 since school started in mid-August. Another staff member also passed away but had not been publicly identified by press time.
The district confirmed the deaths in a press release stating officials will continue to "monitor and prioritize the health and welfare of our students and staff members with safety measures being followed in schools."
“We want to assure members of the district family that all available measures are in place as we monitor health situations within our community,” the press release says.
But some parents and community members feel their school districts have not taken enough action to prevent the spread of the virus to students and staff. At a recent protest held on Aug. 23 outside Berkeley County School District's central office, nearly 20 members from the community came out to plead for a mask mandate in schools.
Currently, both DD2 and BCSD are operating under the proviso 1.108, which restricts South Carolina public schools from using public funds to require a face mask on educational facilities. However, other districts in the state have chosen to go against the current law and implement mask mandates, including Charleston County School District.
“I’m afraid for my children. I told them when they're in the hallway, 'Put your mask on. Keep your mask on as much as possible,’” said Maxie Smith, a parent of children at Berkeley County High School, at the protest. “The delta variant is not a joke. People are getting sick that have been vaccinated. Put on a mask.”
Ashley Baliter, who has two children attending schools in BCSD and was also present at the protest, says she just wants to have a mask mandate long enough for more children to get vaccinated so those who want to be protected from the virus can have that choice.
“It’s not foolproof and there is of course always risk, but it's best that they be in school and it's the best we can do. We just have to be able to say we did the best we can do,” Baliter said.
Baliter said if someone's choice to wear a mask only affected the person wearing it, that would be one thing, but those without masks play a role in spreading the virus to others.
“It's already been proven over and over again that we have to all work together," Baliter said. "So for now, you have to protect my child. You don't get a choice while I protect yours.”
Both districts' boards met for regular meetings last week, where an overflow of parents and community members came to speak during the public comment periods. Those who spoke came with impassioned words to support whichever side they took: pro-mask mandate or against it.
“We are showing our children the importance of choice and teaching them who fought and died for our freedom and our choice,” said Jordan Hall, a community member who spoke at the DD2 board meeting against mask mandates. “What it means to choose is what makes America great and makes this district great. We hope that you continue to give our children and families that.”
Despite the pressure from both sides, neither board chose to implement a mask mandate at this time.
“Part of the oath that we took when we were elected (was) to uphold was the laws of the state of South Carolina," said DD2 board member Gail Hughes at the district's meeting on Aug. 23. "At this point, our board agrees that that is the route that we need to take."
Likewise, BCSD is not requiring face coverings "at this time," Superintendent Deon Jackson confirmed at the district's school board meeting on Aug. 24.
"While we will not require masks or face coverings at this time, we are still encouraging our staff and students to wear masks when physical distancing is not possible, particularly when among those that are unvaccinated,” Jackson said.
As of Aug. 23, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environment reported seven deaths from COVID-19 in Berkeley County and six deaths from COVID-10 in Dorchester County within a week.