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Charleston County schools may not enforce mask mandate, some kids sent to school without them

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Fourth graders Cain Allen (from left), Haydin Brown and Victor Amontillado Cabrera say goodbye on the last day of school at Springfield Elementary School on June 18, 2021, in Charleston. With the new school year having started Aug. 18, Charleston County parents are confused as mixed messages surrounding the district's mask requirement circulate. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Days after the Charleston County School Board ordered a mask mandate, it remains unclear if the district will enforce it.

With cases of COVID-19's delta variant rising across South Carolina, the district's board voted 8-1 on Aug. 16 — just two days before school started — to direct staff to implement a mask requirement for students, employees and visitors until Oct. 15.

The requirement goes against an amendment to the state budget, which prohibits districts from using public funds to implement a mask mandate in schools. But board members such as Vice Chairwoman Courtney Waters said they were prepared to take the issue to court.

District officials spent the next day working with lawyers to figure out what that would actually mean. Late Aug. 18, the district released a statement that indicated no students would be turned away for not adhering to the directive on masks.

"The clear expectation from the CCSD Board of Trustees is that all staff, students, and visitors wear facemasks inside school facilities until at least October 15, 2021, in order to help slow the spread of COVID," Board Chairman Erick Mack said in statement released by the school district. "Masks are also required on school buses. We expect everyone to comply with the mask requirement. We also expect the district and school administration to fully implement this requirement without denying any student access to school and their education."

In an Aug. 17 morning interview, Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait said the district had not yet decided on how it would enforce the mandate. 

"It's not our desire to deny any child a free and appropriate public education," she said. "Our hope is that over the next week or so we can come together as a community and do everything we can to keep kids safe while maintaining a reasonable position regarding face masks."

The messaging has left parents on both sides of the mask issue confused. 

On the night of Aug. 17, the district sent out multiple messages to the families. The first, sent at 4:45 p.m., asked that students and staff "wear their masks in high traffic areas, such as hallways," as well as on school buses. 

The district sent out a second message three hours later, clarifying that "masks are required in all parts of the building, including classrooms, for students, staff, and visitors." 

"An already confusing process has become even more confusing," said Jeff Hanna, whose daughters attend Camp Road Middle School and Charleston County School of the Arts.

Hanna first heard that the principals would not be enforcing the mask rule on the morning of Aug. 18, the first day of school. Hanna's daughter Collette, who attends Camp Road, has cystic fibrosis, a condition which puts her at high risk for severe illness if she contracts the virus. 

The mixed messages have left him anxious about what this could mean for his daughter. 

"The numbers around here have been increasing for weeks," Hanna said. "Health officials, doctors — locally and nationally — have been sounding the alarm and they finally did something. Now it's all up in confusion."

Jessica Zeigler sent her first grade daughter at Carolina Park Elementary in Mount Pleasant to school on the first day without a mask.

Zeigler is against the mask requirements and also heard that the district would not be enforcing the mandate. She's only comfortable sending her daughter to school because she's heard the requirement isn't being enforced.

"I don't want my daughter in masks," Zeigler said. "She would not be sitting in school right now if she was forced to wear a mask."

The district remains one of just three in the state to go against the legislative budget proviso. Richland One in Columbia and Colleton County School District have also passed mask requirements. 

On Aug. 19, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson filed a lawsuit against the City of Columbia in response to an emergency ordinance mandating masks in all daycares, middle and elementary schools that fall in its borders. 

In the lawsuit, Wilson asked the S.C. Supreme Court to find all local mandates from cities, counties and school boards in violation of a state budget provision that seeks to prevent such rules.

Stephen Fastenau contributed to this report from Columbia. 

Follow Libby Stanford on Twitter @libbystanford.

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