SC governor lets parents opt out of public school mask rules

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order Tuesday letting parents opt their children out of wearing masks in public schools, citing widespread coronavirus vaccine access for adults across the state.

The order bans state and local government agencies from requiring people to show proof of vaccination in order to receive government services or access public buildings and facilities as well. Brian Symmes, a spokesman for McMaster, said he had not identified such instances of so-called “vaccine passport” requirements in the state.

“We have known for months that our schools are some of the safest places when it comes to COVID-19,” McMaster said in a statement. “With every adult in our state having the opportunity to receive a vaccine, it goes against all logic to continue to force our children — especially our youngest children — to wear masks against their parents’ wishes.”

McMaster has directed the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, along with the state Department of Education, to put together standardized forms that parents and legal guardians can sign to exempt their children from mask requirements in any public schools.

Local districts told Channel 9 reporter Greg Suskin they will require the form for parents to sign if they want to allow their child not to wear a mask anymore.

Parents should have already been told about the change and the form.

Many schools said that the move is unnecessary with less than a month left of the academic year.

Currently, guidance from the Department of Education requires students, teachers and staff wear face coverings while entering school buildings, moving through hallways and other instances where social distancing is not possible or optimal. The masks are also required on school buses.

At least one school district, Lexington-Richland 5, has removed its mask mandate this week, even after school board members learned employees were threatening to sue, The State newspaper reported.

The governor’s order also limits local governments from issuing mask ordinances based on his prior emergency declarations related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those governments will have to find justification for such mask rules within their own ordinances.

“Everybody knows what we need to do to stay safe — including wearing a mask if you’re at risk of exposing others — but we must move past the time of governments dictating when and where South Carolinians are required to wear a mask,” McMaster said. “Maintaining the status quo ignores all of the great progress we’ve made.”

McMaster himself never implemented a statewide mask rule, instead calling on South Carolinians to show personal responsibility in practicing social distancing and other public health guidelines.

Though some towns and counties have dropped their mask ordinances, city councilmembers of Columbia — the state’s capital — agreed Tuesday morning to renew its mask rule through June 5.

(WATCH: Experts explain why some still wear masks outdoors after easing of COVID-19 restrictions)

On Wednesday, the South Carolina Department of Education released the following statement in response to McMaster’s announcement:

After a thorough legal review of Executive Order 2021-23, the South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) finds no legal grounds by which the Governor can set aside a policy and regulatory directive issued by another constitutional officer or constitutional board whose power is not derived from the state of emergency nor the Executive Branch but by the South Carolina Constitution and Code of Laws. This power is reserved solely for the South Carolina General Assembly. The Governor thoroughly understands the rule of law and surely recognizes this but has been successful in his mission of circumventing public health guidance by inciting hysteria and sowing division in the waning days of the school year.

Rather than wage a debate over constitutionality that would pit elected officials, students, and families against one another, Superintendent Spearman has, effective immediately, rescinded the state face-covering policy with the exception of the school bus requirement that is now required by the federal government. The SCDE recommends school boards and administrators confer with their legal counsel as to what liability protections, if any, are provided by DHEC’s opt-out form. Superintendent Spearman and the SCDE continue to urge schools and districts to follow DHEC’s public health guidance as they have throughout the pandemic.