THE ROOT - In a move that may have national implications, one of South Carolina’s largest school districts asked the state’s highest court to determine whether state legislators have the constitutional right to prevent local school officials from protecting students from the COVID-19.
South Carolina is not handling COVID well.
The Palmetto State currently has the ninth highest rate of positive coronavirus cases and deaths per capita. Over the last two weeks, South Carolina’s COVID death rate has risen 278 percent. In spite of mask recommendations from the CDC and the state’s health department, South Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature decided to invite the deadly contagion into its school with open arms. In July, South Carolina’s General Assembly passed a mask mandate prohibition, a proviso banning districts and individual schools from requiring students, teachers, and other employees to wear face masks.
“The South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) interprets the above language to mean that school districts are prohibited from requiring students and employees to wear a face mask while in any of its educational facilities for the 2021-22 school year,” a July 6 memo said. “Should a district decide to act contrary to this law, state funding may be withheld.”
Apparently, disregarding the advice of public health officials, doctors and scientists does not work. Since the first day of classes, schools across the state have reported thousands of cases of COVID-19. According to The State, more than 600 students and staff members have tested positive for the deadly disease in Columbia, S.C. area schools. That number includes 104 cases and 191 close contacts recorded in just the first two days of classes in Richland Two, the fifth-largest school district in the state. After Columbia passed an ordinance requiring masks in schools and daycare centers, Republican legislators asked S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson to sue the city and the county, declaring that they were in violation of the law.
So Dr. Baron Davis decided to do something about it.
Davis kind of knows what he’s doing. He’s an accomplished educator who has sought to transform how education works for the most marginalized students. In a district where nearly 80 percent of the students are non-white, Richland Two is ranked among the state’s best-performing districts. The district doesn’t just have one of the state’s highest graduation rates and average SAT scores, 85 percent of parents whose children are enrolled in the district say their children feel safe at school.
“I was elected to this position to provide students with a good education in a safe learning environment,” Davis told The Root. “I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t use every possible means to do keep my students safe. Somebody had to do it.”
On Friday, Davis and the district’s Board of Trustees went directly to the South Carolina Supreme Court, asking the body to issue a temporary injunction against the mask mandate prohibition. Citing the data from the CDC and the state’s own health authorities, Davis said he’s simply doing what it takes to protect the students in his district. He noted that the Richland Two’s request has more to do with science than politics. After considering every available alternative, the district enlisted the help of two local firms to explore their legal options.
“It’s not like there are two sides to this issue,” he explained. “We looked at data and listened to the health experts. And the vast majority of our parents agree that a mask mandate should be put in place. There’s only a small fraction that does not.”
When asked about the rights and “freedoms” of anti-mask parents in the district, Davis was very blunt.
“I haven’t heard any.”
“No one has presented a single legitimate argument for why a mask mandate would infringe on their constitutional rights,” he added. “I’ve heard that kids can’t breathe in masks. Parents have said that kids learn better when the teacher can see their faces. But there’s no data for that, it’s just how people feel.
“Ultimately, we considered two things: The mountain of evidence supporting masks in schools, and how people feel,” Davis continued. “This has nothing to do with how I feel. You can’t run any institution on feelings. We didn’t dream up this mask mandate; I’m not a doctor or a virologist, but I’m not a lawyer, either. So after I saw the guidance of the CDC, I decided to seek the guidance of the highest court in the state. That’s what anyone would want their leadership to do.”
“Attorney General Wilson encourages everyone to wear masks when appropriate and encourages anyone who can to get the COVID vaccination,” the state’s attorney general said in a statement. “However, the General Assembly passed a budget proviso that prohibits schools or school districts from requiring masks.”
But Davis notes that this issue is larger than a single school district, or even a state. It’s about legislative overreach. Pointing to recent news about Critical Race Theory and how history can be taught, he explained that the core issue is whether a state or governor has the authority to withhold school funding and overrule the decisions of local school officials based on political ideology.
“My objection to this proviso is not just about this mask mandate,” he explained. “It’s about whether the general assembly can tie our school funding to something that has nothing to do with education. If they can do that, what’s to stop them from requiring us to teach that the earth is flat, or that two plus two equals five?”
Davis also pointed out that the legislation disproportionately affects low-income and minority students. The new rule exempts private schools attended by the children of more affluent South Carolinians.
But this is not the only COVID-related decision that South Carolina’s leadership will consider. On the day Richland Two asked for a temporary injunction, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control urged legislators to call a special session to repeal the ban on mask mandates.
“Strictly from a public health standpoint, the best way to protect our children is to require the use of masks by everyone in the school,” said DHC director Edward Simmer. “What the science shows is that, if we want to protect our students -- and for that matter, everyone else in the school, but especially our students, and keep them in school -- we should require masks.”
But what does he know? He’s just a board-certified medical doctor with a master’s in public health.
“Imagine if we had this kind of concentrated effort on eradicating poverty,” said Davis. “Instead, we’re fighting over masks.”
According to a report by Education Week, eight states have banned mandates. Six of those (Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas) rank in the bottom half of COVID cases per capita.
(Michael Harriot is a writer for The Root where this story was first posted.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.