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School mask mandate in city of Charleston fails after heated meeting

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Some students wear masks in classrooms on the first day of school at Flowertown Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 in Summerville. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

DANIEL ISLAND — Charleston City Council failed to pass an emergency ordinance on Tuesday night that would have mandated masks inside public and private schools and day cares across the city, a day after the city's main school district passed its own mask mandate, and on the same night several universities passed similar rules.

The decision came after a raucous meeting where dozens of speakers addressed the council on the proposal. Most were staunchly opposed to the measure but some, including a few doctors, spoke in favor, saying it was protective of public health in the wake of the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19. Speakers repeatedly shouted at the council, and some members of the audience shouted at the speakers.

At the peak of the commotion, Councilman Harry Griffin said, "I’ve never been more ashamed than I am right now."

Online commenters broadly supported the ordinance.

The original measure would have required adults and children over the age of 2 to use face coverings “in all public facilities, including public schools, private schools and daycares," according to a draft, and expired in 60 days. 

But carveouts for Berkeley County schools and private schools, first proposed by Councilman Ross Appel, served to kill the measure, which needed a two-thirds approval by council because it was an emergency ordinance.

Charleston County School District already approved a similar rule, but Berkeley County School District, which operates schools in Charleston's jurisdiction on Daniel Island and the Cainhoy Peninsula, has not. BCSD spokeswoman Katie Tanner said there are no changes to the district's policies, which make masks optional.

A group of about two-dozen protesters convened outside the meeting before it started at the Daniel Island Recreation Center, holding signs saying "unmask our children" and "my body, my choice." 

Their numbers grew by time they filed into the center's gym for the meeting. They cited their children's discomfort with masks, that the face coverings were disruptive to learning, and other issues. 

But the delta variant has ripped through South Carolina at a breakneck pace, with only about 46 percent of the state's eligible resident vaccinated, and no vaccine approved for children under 12. 

Kelli Williams, a pediatric immunologist for the Medical University of South Carolina, urged that she had seen juvenile patients with no evident symptoms who tested positive, and had likely passed the virus along unknowingly as they attended summer camps.

She said the prior week, three children in MUSC's hospital with COVID-19 had been put on ventilators, and one died.

Contentious debate among council members over the report and recommendations assembled by the city’s special racial conciliation commission also punctuated the meeting, with several public speakers also weighing in on the report.

The Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion and Racial Conciliation presented its report to council for a vote on whether to "receive" it and share it with council’s standing committees. Council was not asked to consider the specific recommendations, let alone approve them.

Nevertheless, several council members questioned some of the report's contents and why a vote was called for in the first place.

Seven votes were needed to accept the report. Six council members were active participants in the special commission, and previously indicated they would vote in its favor, but one of them — Appel — chose to vote no.

Mayor John Tecklenburg received it himself, and promised to forward its recommendations to the appropriate standing committees.

Isabelle Altman and Adam Parker contributed to this report.

This article has been updated to clarify a quote by Harry Griffin.

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.