In light of Gov. Henry McMaster's orders to immediately end local mask mandates and allow parents to decline school mask requirements, Grand Strand public schools are having to adjust their protocols.
McMaster's order directed the Department of Health and Environmental Control to make a waiver form for parents to fill out if they want to opt-out of any face covering requirements in schools.
Horry County Schools said it will start accepting completed forms May 13. Students who are uncomfortable with attending classes in-person due to opt-outs will be allowed to work from home for the remainder of the year, Spokesperson Lisa Bourcier said in a statement.
Parents must submit a request for remote learning by May 17, and these students will be required to work from home for the remainder of the school year. HCS employees, besides bus drivers, will also no longer be required to wear masks.
Horry County's school year ends on June 17.
The opt-out form also brings another issue to light: seating in classrooms. DHEC"s current standards allow students to be less than six feet apart only if plexiglass separates them and all are wearing masks.
Because of McMaster's order, HCS said a student who is not wearing a mask within six feet of a student who tests positive for COVID-19 will be required to quarantine for 10-days to comply with DHEC requirements.
HCS said final exams for newly remote students will take place via Google Classroom. State-required tests must be taken in school, though students who do not feel safe to report in-person for these tests will not be penalized.
Georgetown County School District will also be accepting waiver forms, citing low incidence rates of COVID-19 and high vaccination rates throughout the county. The district offered no other information, such as allowing students to work from home like HCS, as of the evening of May 12.
The South Carolina Department of Education said McMaster does not have legal grounds to remove school districts mandates, though as of May 12, SCDOE rescinded their face covering policy, except on school buses, which is required by the federal government.
"The Governor thoroughly understands the rule of law and surely recognizes this but has been successful in his mission of circumventing public health guidance by inciting hysteria and sowing division in the waning days of the school year," said Ryan Brown, spokesperson for the state's Department of Education through a prepared statement.
McMaster cited the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines as reason to end local mask mandates and introduce the opt-out form.
Vaccine skepticism runs high in South Carolina, and public health leaders are concerned about reaching herd immunity. Seventy percent of the population needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, according to Johns Hopkins University.
About 35 percent of South Carolinians ages 15 and up have completed their vaccination process, while 44 percent have received at least one shot.
Children younger than 16 haven’t been eligible to get a shot but should be soon. On May 10, the Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12 to 15.
The city of Myrtle Beach announced May 13 it would no longer require masks in government buildings. Spokesperson Mark Kruea said masks are still encouraged but not required indoors, and that the decision to lift the government buildings mandate was made to keep up with McMaster's order and Center for Disease Control guidance.
As of May 13, the CDC said those who are fully vaccinated can resume most indoor and outdoor activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing.
Georgetown County no longer has a mask mandate in place, but the city of Georgetown recently renewed its mask mandate until July 30 or until the governor’s state of emergency ends.
Georgetown Mayor Brendon Barber the governor's order supersedes his order and he will respect it. Barber also emphasized while he is following McMaster's orders, it is still important to practice safety in Georgetown by getting vaccinated, especially as the tourist-attracting city enters the spring and summer seasons.
"We're still not clear, out of the woods yet. We have to get folks who are still not vaccinated yet, vaccinated," Barber said, adding that the city is aiming for its public offices and facilities to be fully open by July 1.