COLUMBIA — As COVID-19 cases slow and vaccinations rise, Columbia region school districts are beginning to assess — and in some cases change — their existing policies.
On May 4, trustees at Lexington One and Lexington-Richland District Five school districts took different stances on relaxing classroom mask requirements through the rest of the year.
Lexington-Richland 5 trustees voted 4-2 to rescind an August 2020 requirements for masks inside classrooms, opting now to make them discretionary. That decision came after more than 30 minutes of public comment where teachers and parent opinion was split.
“We’re sitting here dickering about keeping babies in face coverings. It’s child abuse. No ifs, ands or buts about it,” said Laura LaSalle, a district parent and member of the Facebook group “Unmask our Kids,” which paid for a billboard in Chapin. “I have not worn a mask since the beginning of this. I’m not dead. A true pandemic, people are dead in the streets. This has become political. Government overreach is done.”
A few miles away at the Lexington One central office, more than 60 people testified for almost three hours — nearly all of them demanded trustees rescind a mask requirement.
But Lexington One trustees never implemented a formal policy, instead abiding by the state's guidance. Superintendent Greg Little recommended May 4 keeping in place classroom masking requirements through the end of the year.
"Masks absolutely have played an essential role in our return to school," Little said. "We realize that people are frustrated with masking and the pandemic in general and we all want it to be over, but we're not quite there yet."
Meanwhile, officials in other large Midlands districts — Richland One, Richland Two and Lexington Two — told The Post and Courier that existing policies mandating masks while inside classrooms will remain in place for now.
If districts dump masks, state Department of Education still requires masks be worn on school buses, hallways and other areas where people gather in large numbers, spokesman Ryan Brown said.
“They could make it optional in the classroom if they wanted to and still be in accordance with our guidelines,” he said.
But Brown told The Post and Courier the agency plans to rescind that policy at the end of the academic year.
During the debate at the Lexington-Richland 5 meeting, Cindy Reeves, a music teacher at Leaphart Elementary School, said she contracted COVID-19 less than a month after returning to the classroom after breast cancer treatment and said lifting the mask requirement likely would drive her out of work once again.
“Are you comfortable with even one person dying under your leadership? Masks work best when everyone wears one,” said Albert Jones, another district teacher.
Trustees said the district ordinance approved last year by the previous board amounted to government overreach, especially since no end date was written into it.
“We are conditioning our children to be scared and I feel like we're conditioning them to be scared because of politics,” trustee Rebecca Blackburn Hines said.
At the Lexington One meeting, Lisa Bostic, like several other parents, broke into tears as she addressed the board.
"I don't live with my son anymore, because he's hearing one thing at school and he's hearing the truth at home," she said. "You have no idea how many families you have broken up, and how much psychological damage you've done to children. I am angry."
A 40-year paramedic and mother of a teenaged son agreed.
"The masks do absolutely nothing, I know that for a fact," Gilbert resident Jackie Bruce said. "I'm forced to wear a mask a work. I don't want my child to be forced to wear a mask. He is getting to the point where he is getting suicidal."
Lexington One trustee Kyle Guyton, a pediatrician, slammed Gov. Henry McMaster's demands for an end to local mask requirements statewide.
"I will not put this community in jeopardy because the governor chose political rhetoric," he said. "I can't tell you if plexiglass makes a difference .I can't tell you masks make a difference, I can't tell you if social distancing or handwashing make a difference, but I can tell you all of them (together) do."
Updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols issued April 27 say fully vaccinated people can start to gather indoors without masks while staying six feet apart, but suggests face coverings should still be worn in situations where some people’s vaccination status is unknown.
More than 30 percent of South Carolina adults have completed their vaccination as May 1, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Lexington County is running ahead of that, with 34 percent of its residents inoculated — a figure that jumps to 44 percent including people who have received the first of their two-dose regimen.
Jessica Holdman contributed from Columbia.