Fort Mill schools decide against mask mandate

FORT MILL, S.C. — Fort Mill Schools announced Tuesday that the district will not require masks.

The decision comes ahead of a board meeting Tuesday night that dozens of parents are expected to show up to. Some parents are applauding the decision while others are outraged by it.

The district sent a message to parents and staff saying it will not make masks mandatory for students and staff after talking to attorneys and considering recent COVID-19 data.

“I felt like I had a gut punch, a punch to the gut,” parent Sarah Daniel said after receiving the message. “I felt like we didn’t have due process. It was being spoken to us not for us.”

Last week, a federal judge blocked the South Carolina law that prohibited school districts from creating mask mandates. Afterwards, the state’s superintendent told school districts they now have the authority to require masks.

Local school leaders said since a peak in positive cases four weeks ago, COVID-19 cases among students have declined by 75%. administrators said that indicates that the measures they are taking right now to protect students from the spread of the virus are working -- and at this point a district-wide mask mandate is not necessary.

Daniel said she wanted the district to require masks to protect her son and daughter.

“CDC guidelines are saying we need to be masked in schools,” she said. “The ACLU case said kids with disabilities need to have a fair shake too. My daughter is disabled, she has to be masked. She goes to school masked every day.”

A parent group called Mom’s for liberty issued a statement in support of the district’s decision. The group said that mask mandates are burdensome on principals, teachers and staff.

Moms for liberty also said it wants clarification on exactly how many positive cases the district would have to see before considering a mask mandate.

Leaders promised to continue monitoring cases and said they could mandate masks at a school or district level if there is a continued two week trend of rising positive case numbers at an individual school or district level or if there is evidence of community spread at an individual school.

>>Many parents on both side of the issue are expected to show up at Tuesday night’s school board meeting. We’ll be there and will have much more reaction from the district and others in our area, on Eyewitness News.

Read Fort Mill School full statement below:

“The district administrative team has completed a review of the federal court injunction that lifted the ban on mask mandates in South Carolina, along with information provided by the South Carolina Department of Education and district legal counsel. Based on this review and data related to COVID-19 cases in our district, the administration has decided the use of face coverings will remain optional at this time. Provided below is information on this decision and protocols for a future requirement for face coverings should they be needed.

A federal court ruling released the afternoon of September 28 issued a temporary injunction that struck down Proviso 1.108, which prohibited South Carolina schools from requiring face coverings for students and employees. In a memorandum to superintendents, State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman stated, “The immediate effect of the Court’s order is that both the state and local school districts are prohibited from enforcing Proviso 1.108 and school districts now have the discretionary authority to require masks.”

According to further information provided by the South Carolina Department of Education on September 29, the guidance from State Superintendent Spearman remains valid, as the United States District Court’s Order is not affected or controlled by the South Carolina Supreme Court’s opinion in a different case based upon a different cause of action. Because the Federal District Court found that Proviso 1.108 violates Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, both the state and local school districts are prohibited from enforcing Proviso 1.108 and school districts maintain the discretionary authority to require face coverings.

Since the peak in positive cases four weeks ago, COVID-19 positive student cases within the Fort Mill School District have declined by 75%. The administration believes this indicates that existing measures, including the exclusion of COVID-positive students under the current DHEC protocols, rigorous contact tracing that includes quarantining of close contacts and other mitigation strategies are positively impacting the number of COVID-19 cases in district schools.

The decision not to require face coverings district-wide at this time was based on the dramatic downward trend in student COVID-19 cases, the recognition that mask mandates are burdensome on principals, teachers, and staff, and the knowledge that monitoring such a mandate takes our employees away from their primary instructional and support duties.

It is the district’s goal to continue face-to-face learning for as long as possible. To that end, the district will continue to closely monitor the COVID-19 case numbers and may enact a requirement for the use of face coverings at individual school or district level using one or both of the following parameters:

  • A continued two week trend of rising positive COVID-19 case numbers at an individual school or the district level.
  • Evidence of community spread at an individual school location.

As parents continue to make the decision about what is best for their children, families are reminded that the use of face coverings at school remains a recommendation of DHEC and the CDC.

Additionally, as of August 26, DHEC changed the parameters for determining close contacts to take into consideration the wearing of masks when the close contact occurs between students. For example, an unvaccinated* student who spends at least 15 minutes within 3-6 feet of another COVID-positive student is considered a close contact and must quarantine, unless both individuals were wearing face coverings. As a result, the number of students missing school due to required quarantining could be significantly reduced if students were to consistently wear masks.

Current COVID-19 mitigation strategies in Fort Mill Schools include:

  • maintain 3-feet of distance whenever possible
  • exclusion from school of students and staff who are COVID positive
  • exclusion from school of unvaccinated students and staff determined to be “close/household contacts” of a COVID-positive individual
  • rigorous contact tracing to minimize the number of students determined to be “close contacts” in the school setting and therefore required under DHEC exclusion rules to quarantine
  • free COVID-19 testing for students or staff
  • visual cues to remind students about handwashing
  • hand sanitizer stations
  • continued installation of the Air Guardian systems
  • lunch in the classroom at the elementary level
  • expanded lunch periods and areas for middle and high schools
  • no visitors policy
  • field trips limited to surrounding areas
  • visual reminders to cover coughs and sneezes

*DHEC does not require vaccinated individuals to quarantine. We recommend that parents, in consultation with their child’s primary care physician, consider vaccination for eligible students.

This information does not impact the current federal requirement for the use of face coverings on school buses.

The district will continue to update students, parents and staff of any changes to our mitigation strategies should they be needed. All information, district COVID-19 protocols, and data can be found under the COVID-19 tab on the district website at www.fortmillschools.org.”

(WATCH: Middle school in Fort Mill to return to classroom after going remote due to COVID-19 cases)