SC Statehouse
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The pressure is on state lawmakers to hold an emergency session and revise a law that prohibits mask mandates in schools as COVID-19 gets deadlier each day across the Palmetto State. 

On Thursday, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) reported one of its deadliest days during the pandemic in the last six months. The agency reported 56 deaths, bringing the statewide death toll to 10,413. It is the most deaths for any single day in South Carolina since Feb. 19 when the agency reported 67 total deaths for the day. DHEC also reported 3,259 confirmed cases and 986 “probable” cases on Thursday, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases to more than 707,000 throughout the state.

But so far despite calls by Democratic legislators and some Republican colleagues, state GOP leaders have not made a decision to call for a special session to deal with the possibility of a school mask mandate, which was banned in the current year budget, and other pandemic-related issues. Despite challenges and attacks, Republicans, including Gov. Henry McMaster, continue to oppose mask mandates in schools.

Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, said an emergency session is unlikely to work.

Ballentine

“I do not see us revisiting the budget. That would take a two-thirds vote of both bodies and any changes would also require that amount of support. Additionally Governor McMaster is likely to veto any efforts to allow districts to decide.”

Ballentine said the General Assembly voted in the budget to give control to parents about their children’s health and safety. 

“Masks can still be worn to protect individuals and others. The science shows our kids are at the least risk. Not no risk. But least risk. Teachers and other adults (and many kids) can be vaccinated to do their part.”

Huggins

Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Lexington, held a similar view. He said the problem can be handled with the same health care measures used by families for other illnesses, such as the flu or pneumonia.

“Just stick to the basics,” he said.

Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, did not respond to a call requesting an interview.

“We’ve got to do something.”

Other lawmakers say urgent action is needed.

“It’s hard to admit you did something wrong,” Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, said of the failure to call a special session. “But people are living in danger.”

Howard

Howard is chairman of the House Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee.

Hutto said he couldn’t comprehend why his fellow lawmakers would oppose supporting such an important health problem. 

“This is not a political issue,” he told Statehouse Report, City Paper‘s sister publication, though more Democrats than Republicans appear to favor mask mandates.

Meanwhile recently, state Sens. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, Ronnie Sabb, D-Williamsburg, Luke Rankin, R-Horry, and Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, recently wrote a letter asking Peeler to call a special session as COVID-19 cases rise.

The senators say in the letter, “experts believe the spread of COVID-19 will explode” and that more than 1,000 doctors and pediatricians in the state have asked senators to return to session to reconsider the ban on masks in schools.

While some may view mask rules as a violation of “personal liberty,” Hutto in an interview said it boils down to normal safety precautions, such as seatbelts in a car.

The legislature must reconvene as soon as possible to address an ever-worsening pandemic, he said, adding “We’ve got to do something.”

Senn

Senn told Statehouse Report that she sees the problem as a “home rule” issue. She said local governments, not the state, should make such decisions based on their own particular situation.

DHEC also pushing on mask mandates

Another push for masks is coming from DHEC. With COVID-19 cases spiking in schools statewide, the board of South Carolina’s health agency last Friday instructed its director and chairman to contact state lawmakers to urge them to revise the law passed earlier this year that prohibits mask mandates in schools.

During the meeting, state epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell and DHEC Public Health Director Dr. Brannon Traxler, laid out the argument for mask mandates in schools.

The doctors noted the science shows having all people in schools wearing masks will protect students’ health and give them the best chance to succeed academically and socially.

The state is also facing legal challenges from a school district in the Columbia area.

The Richland 2 school district is asking the S.C. Supreme Court to block enforcement of the law banning mask requirements in school.

“South Carolina is in a state of public health emergency, as evidenced by the requirements that citizens must wear a face covering to enter a courthouse in the State,” said the filing, which asserts that masks are an effective means of preventing the spread of COVID-19, a highly contagious respiratory virus.

The filing questions whether the law that bans public schools from requiring masks is constitutional.

The inaction by lawmakers also has prompted some local jurisdictions to enact their own laws.

The city of Columbia has passed its own law mandating masks in schools, an action now under legal challenge from Attorney General Alan Wilson.

The legislature will meet in a special session, probably in September, to discuss budget issues and redistricting. Discussion of the mask mandate ban could surface during that session. The legislature will not convene again until the 2022 session in January.

Originally published in Statehouse Report.

Al Dozier of Columbia is a veteran reporter. Have a comment? Send to feedback@charlestoncitypaper.com.