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1 in 6 in-person Georgetown students opts out of masks; District joins Juul lawsuit

GCSDMay4.jpg (copy)

As of May 18, one in six Georgetown County School District students had filled out the Department of Health and Environmental Control's mask opt-out form.

GEORGETOWN — One in six Georgetown County School District students had filled out the Department of Health and Environmental Control's mask opt-out form as of May 18, and those forms are still open for parents to fill out, said the district's safety and risk management Alan Walters.

Teachers are also no longer required to wear masks if they are vaccinated, though they'll be held accountable on the honor system.

As of May 18, Georgetown schools will not be offering students the option to work from home if they are uncomfortable with their peers no longer being required to wear masks because of the opt-out forms. Horry County Schools offered this option to students May 12.

Walters said with only three weeks left in the school year, there has not been much demand from parents or administration for this option.

Gov. Henry McMaster ordered an immediate end to mask mandates in South Carolina on May 11, saying the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines means governments should stop dictating when and where people cover their face.

McMaster’s order aimed to end mask mandates in schools by directing the state’s public health agency to create a form for parents to sign to exempt their child from any face-covering requirements.

The S.C. Department of Education said May 12 McMaster did not have legal grounds to remove school district mandates, though it later removed its face covering policy except on school buses due to federal mandates requiring it.

Despite the state education agency's announcement, Georgetown schools will accept waiver forms, citing low incidence rates of COVID-19 and high vaccination rates throughout the county.

To help fund the expenses that come with reopening schools in the fall, the district school board approved a tax anticipation note of upwards of $6 million at its meeting May 18.

Tax anticipation notes are short-term loans used when property tax funds for the district begin to run low, said Lisa Johnson, the district's associate superintendent for finance and technology. This tends to happen around Thanksgiving, she added, and this note would be repaid by mid-March 2022.

These funds allow the district to make it until its tax revenue kicks in, and Johnson said this year's tax revenue collection is projected to come in above budget because of additional fees in lieu tax collections.

Tax anticipation notes are usually used to fund things like technology, Johnson said, but because federal funds awarded to the district through President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan are being used for technology instead, the district has more leeway to use the note for other things such as school reopening expenses.

Also May 18, Georgetown schools became the seventh district in the state to join a nationwide class action lawsuit against Juul for potential damages incurred as a result of the vaping company.

With no buy-in expense for the district and no expense to taxpayers, the district attorney Lindsay Anne Thompson said it is a no-lose situation to be part of.

The main claims in the suit are that Juul intentionally marketed its e-cigarettes — which, the suit claims, have been proven to be significantly more addictive than regular cigarettes — to underage consumers. Georgetown schools have had to upgrade their metal detectors at schools to catch vapes on students, Thompson said, as well as spend more time and money on suspensions related to vape possession in schools.

Though there are other vaping companies responsible for damages, according to the suit, Juul is being targeted Thompson said because it controls over 75 percent of the market. The litigation could take years, Thompson said, and how much money the district could get depends on the total number of students it has and the extent of its damages from Juul.

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Follow Demi Lawrence on Twitter @DemiNLawrence.

Demi Lawrence reports on Georgetown County for The Post and Courier. She graduated from Ball State University in 2020, and previously was an intern at The Herald Bulletin in Anderson, Indiana and Indianapolis Monthly.