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Editorial: McMaster's nakedly political anti-mask orders endanger SC progress against COVID

South-Carolina GOP Trump

Gov. Henry McMaster was courting GOP primary voters at the Richland County Republican convention on April 30. He was doing the same thing Tuesday when he ordered schools to let children attend without masks. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

Kids probably won’t die or even get terribly sick as a result of Gov. Henry McMaster’s demand that schools allow children to attend without masks, in defiance of Education Superintendent Molly Spearman’s requirement and DHEC’s recommendation. After all, serious illness and deaths from COVID-19 are rare in young people.

We just hope the unmasked kids don’t turn our schools into superspreader destinations that trigger a significant uptick of infection in our communities, increasing the opportunities for mutations that are impervious to the vaccines. After all, only a handful of students are vaccinated, and requiring kids to wear masks is what kept the virus from spreading significantly in the schools all year. And although the vaccine has significantly reduced COVID transmission in South Carolina, the rate was so high to begin with that it’s still above the level where DHEC and the CDC say it’s safe to abandon our public health precautions.

We hope the kids who continue to wear masks aren’t forced to spend too many days out of the classroom — which we fought so hard to allow them back into — because an unmasked child tests positive for COVID and everybody nearby has to quarantine for 10 days. After all, kids haven’t had to quarantine as long as they and the infected child were wearing masks.

We hope there aren’t so many unmasked kids that responsible parents feel the need to pull their kids out of the classes to protect them from infection — particularly since many districts can’t make room virtual classrooms this late in the school year. But we understand why some parents would: Masks mainly protect other people, not the wearer, and since children whose parents object to masks are more likely to take risks that expose their own children to infection, it’s those careful kids who the governor just put at greater risk of infection.

We hope too that voters remember Executive Order 2021-23, which is probably the most irresponsible thing Gov. McMaster has done in a lifetime in public office. It was certainly the most nakedly political: an action taken for absolutely no reason but to appeal to that small minority of South Carolinians who insist that COVID is not dangerous and masks are — a group that will have an outsize voice in the Republican primary election he will face in a year.

Contrary to their hysterical claims, there is nothing harmful about wearing masks, except to a tiny portion of people whose medical conditions already allow them to opt out. Nor is there anything oppressive about requiring people to wear masks for a few months, while we’re still fighting an airborne pandemic that is still hospitalizing and killing South Carolinians every day. Contrary to Mr. McMaster’s populist rhetoric, parents should no more be able to send their kids to school without masks than without shoes or shirts or pants.

As exciting as it was to get the CDC's all-clear Thursday for fully vaccinated people to shed their masks, that has no bearing on this matter because most students aren't even eligible yet to be vaccinated; those who are only became eligible a few days ago.

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We applaud DHEC Director Dr. Edward Simmer for requiring parents who complete the McMaster-mandated parental opt-out form to acknowledge that his agency and the CDC still recommend masks in school and to release the school from any liability if their child is infected. 

We applaud Education Superintendent Molly Spearman for explaining very clearly what the governor had done. While she questioned his legal authority to overrule the decision of a fellow constitutional officer, she recognized that he had made it impossible for all practical purposes for school districts to enforce a mask requirement and thus had “been successful in his mission of circumventing public health guidance by inciting hysteria and sowing division in the waning days of the school year.” Given that reality, she made the pragmatic decision to rescind her own order “rather than wage a debate over constitutionality that would pit elected officials, students, and families against one another.”

What Ms. Spearman didn’t say was that the governor either deliberately or carelessly made his order much more disruptive than it had to be.

Instead of ordering DHEC and the Education Department to produce a mask opt-out form for parents to complete and send back to school, he could have asked them in advance to produce the form, so it was ready when he issued the order.

Instead of making his order effective immediately, he could have delayed it until the start of the week, to give schools time to prepare for the change, and to give responsible parents time to consider the ramifications of his order, and what if any changes they wanted to make.

And if a concession of three days was just too much, he at least could have made his announcement in the morning, giving schools an opportunity to send information home with students before the order took effect the next morning, rather than waiting until after 5 p.m. when students had already been dismissed and school offices were closed for the day.

Demanding zero risk — as some on the left are doing — is unrealistic and might be just as irresponsible as denying that there’s any risk from COVID-19. But we’re nowhere near zero risk. We hope Mr. McMaster hasn’t just pushed an acceptable level of risk even further out of reach.

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