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Charleston County School Board votes to end mask requirement

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The Charleston County School Board voted to end its mask mandate starting Nov. 10, 2021. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Charleston County School District decided its mask mandate will end on Nov. 10, allowing students, staff and visitors to go to schools without face coverings.

The district's school board voted overwhelmingly in favor of ending its mask policy during a Nov. 8 meeting, citing a low spread of the COVID-19 virus and the recent availability of vaccines for children ages 5 to 11.

The district reported only 38 cases among about 50,000 students and staff members over the week of Nov. 1 — the eighth consecutive week cases fell. During its peak the week of Aug. 30, there were 473 cases reported among students and staff members. 

The district is following guidance from doctors at the Medical University of South Carolina, which said that it's reasonable to unmask when spread of the virus is low in the community. The COVID-19 activity in Charleston County is currently rated "low" by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. 

Nov. 10 will be the first day in the 2021-22 school year when the district will not have a mask policy in place. The board initially passed a mask requirement two days before the school year began because members were worried about their schools' ability to operate as the delta variant spread through student populations across the state. 

Shortly after it announced the mandate, the board clarified that it would not be able to enforce the new rule because a provision in the 2021-22 budget prohibited schools from using public funds allocated for that year to enforce masks.

Then, on Sept. 16, the board announced it would begin enforcing the mask requirement after finding a loophole in the budget rule where it could pay for people to implement the mandate by tapping into its savings. Any student who refused to wear a mask and did not have an exemption had to learn virtually. 

The district's stance caused outrage among parents who are opposed to the mask mandate, many of whom protested at board meetings throughout the past few months.

Public response to the board's Nov. 8 decision was divided, with three parents writing in to the district's online comment forum about their opposition to the mask requirement and another four parents requesting that the board extend the mandate through December. The online forum is used by members of the public who cannot attend the board meeting in person.

Laura McMahan, one of the commenters who's a grandparent of students in the district's schools, said that she wanted the mandate extended because children are still being vaccinated. 

"Please provide critical time for this to occur," she wrote.

On Oct. 29, the Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-11.

The board left the window open to reinstate the mask mandate if case numbers start to rise again, saying  it would reconvene if DHEC rated cases numbers in the district "medium" or "high." 

"We'll still continue to strongly encourage face masks, wearing a face mask can reduce your chances of needing to quarantine," board member Kristen French said. 

The district is following DHEC's guidance when it comes to quarantining students that says masked students who come within 3 to 6 feet of a positive case do not have to quarantine, but unmasked students do. 

Charleston County School District's Chief Operations Officer Jeff Borowy said that without a mask mandate there may be more quarantines, as fewer students will be wearing face coverings. 

The board also encouraged the district to continue its efforts to vaccinate students and staff members. The district is offering first-time vaccines for its 5- to 11-year-old population as well as booster shots for staff members in the coming weeks. 

The district has 10 vaccine clinics planned throughout its schools, starting on Nov. 15. Parents and guardians can sign up their students by visiting Erica Cokley was the only board member to vote against ending the mandate. 

Follow Libby Stanford on Twitter @libbystanford.

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