MONCKS CORNER — Despite a recent spike in COVID-19 cases and pushback from top state education officials, the Berkeley County School District remains steadfast in not requiring students, faculty and staff to wear face coverings while on campus.
The district is the only one in the state that has chosen not to require face coverings for its 31,800 students while on school property.
Its policy "strongly encourages" masks be worn when entering and exiting school buildings, in hallways and common areas and while in "close proximity to others," but falls short of requiring them.
It is a policy that has been at odds with the state’s education officials and many district parents.
The S.C. Department of Education issued a face-covering mandate during the summer. Masks must be worn when entering a school building, moving through hallways, during carpool/bus drop-off or pickup, and when social distancing is not possible or optimal.
The fact that the district has ignored the mandate has baffled state officials.
“We are the height of another surge, so their policy or lack of one is, well, troubling,” said Ryan Brown, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Education. “We’ve had a considerable back-and-forth with the district. We don’t understand their rationale and we don’t support it.”
Brown said Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman could decide to withhold funds from the district in the future if the policy isn’t changed but hoped it won’t come to that.
“The majority of state money that goes to the districts is for teacher salaries and to support students,” Brown said. “If we withheld those funds, we’d be hurting the people that we’re actually trying to help. We’re in a stalemate right now, so any further movement on either side will probably come in a courtroom.”
Over the past two weeks, BCSD has reported 78 COVID-19 cases among faculty and staff while recording 188 student cases. South Carolina has reported more than 366,000 cases of COVID-19 in the past year, with more than 5,700 deaths. The past month has seen the largest increase in cases and deaths since the pandemic began a year ago.
Many parents have lobbied the district to require face coverings, especially in light of the recent spike, but have felt like their voices are going unheard.
“The fact that the district doesn’t have a mandate is ridiculous,” said Melissa Soule, whose son Ben is an eighth grader at Marrington Middle School of the Arts. “It’s the reason that Ben isn’t going to in-person classes. He started in-person learning at the beginning of the year but went virtual when he saw kids not wearing masks in his class, and Marrington has one of the best policies in the district.”
During the district’s monthly meeting Jan. 12, the board spent more than 45 minutes addressing face coverings and a mask mandate, but no action was taken. The majority of the board members seemed to be supportive of a stronger mask mandate.
“I’m in favor of requiring masks and I’m fine if we change the language and policy from ‘strongly encourage’ to ‘require,’” board member Mac McQuillin said at the meeting.
The sentiment was shared by board member Frank Wright.
“I think it makes sense to require students and teachers to wear masks,” Wright said.
Despite taking no action or having a formal vote on the issue, the board did ask district Superintendent Eddie Ingram to work with principals at individual schools to address any issues they were having about compliance. District spokeswoman Katie Tanner said Ingram did address face coverings with county principals last week, leaving the final decision on policy up to the principals.
“The board kicked the can down to the superintendent, and he kicked it down to the principals,” Soule said.
On Tuesday, Philip Simmons Elementary School Principal LaToya King sent an email to teachers updating the school’s face-covering policy. The new policy would require all students, teachers, faculty and visitors to wear masks when entering the building.
Multiple attempts this week to interview district officials to ask about the issue went unanswered. It is not known how many other county schools besides Philip Simmons now require face coverings on campus.
While the district might not require students to wear masks, many parents like Ted Bolden, whose daughter Kaitlyn is a third grader at Hanahan Elementary School, have not given his children any choice in the matter.
“It’s the right thing to do no matter what the district policy is,” Bolden said. “I can’t remember the last time I saw a student without a mask on when I was dropping off or picking up (Kaitlyn). Most parents are pretty responsible.”
Board members have noticed that issues with face coverings have come in the high schools, where a handful of students have refused to wear masks.
“Most of the resistance we are getting is from the high school students,” said board member Kathy Littlejohn on Jan. 12.
This isn’t the first time the district and state officials have clashed over face covering mandates. In September, Spearman threatened to pull access to state-owned school buses in the county if the district didn’t comply with the state’s face-covering requirements.
In a series of letters back and forth between the district and the state, Ingram challenged Spearman’s authority to issue such a mandate.
“Failure to implement these requirements will result in the district’s forfeiture of the ability to utilize 209 state-owned school buses currently allocated to your district,” Spearman wrote to Ingram.
The district eventually updated its policy to require masks on buses but stopped short of formally mandating masks inside buildings.