US education secretary sends SC governor letter over mask requirement ban; legal action possible

Southeast Region

In this Aug. 9, 2021, photo, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic at a news conference in Columbia, S.C. Top Republicans are battling school districts in their own states’ urban, heavily Democratic areas over whether students should be required to mask up as they head back to school. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — The U.S. Secretary of Education sent a letter Wednesday to Gov. Henry McMaster over the ban on school mask requirements.

The letter, signed by Secretary of Education Miguel A. Cardona, says South Carolina’s ban on mask requirements may violate federal law. The letter points out the federal safe return to in-person instruction plan, which applies to all schools that receive federal money.

“South Carolina’s actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts these goals at risk and may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by Federal Law,” the letter states.

The letter was also addressed to State Superintendent Molly Spearman, who said Wednesday she disagrees with McMaster and that districts should be allowed to make their own decisions regarding masks. Several districts across the state have enacted mask requirements anyways, including Marlboro County School District.

“The Department recognizes that several [Local Educational Agencies] in your State have already moved to adopt such policies in line with guidance from the CDC for the reopening and operation of school facilities despite the State-level prohibitions,” the letter states. “The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction.”

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In an escalating battle with Republican governors, President Joe Biden on Wednesday ordered his Education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19.

In response, the Education Department raised the possibility of using its civil rights arm to fight policies in Florida, Texas, Iowa and other Republican-led states that have barred public schools from requiring masks in the classroom.

Biden directed Cardona to “assess all available tools” that can be used against states that fail to protect students amid surging coronavirus cases.

“If [Biden] put as much effort into a withdrawal plan for Afghanistan as he is trying to force masks on our children then we wouldn’t have Americans and allies stuck behind enemy lines,” McMaster tweeted Wednesday. “He’s more concerned about Republican governors than he is with the Taliban.”

Meanwhile, there are already more than 180 cases of COVID-19 in Horry County Schools, less than a week after students headed back to the classroom.

According to the Horry County Schools COVID-19 Case Dashboard, student cases jumped nearly 52% in one day. The district reported 158 student cases on Thursday. The number of student cases was 104 on Wednesday.

The total number of cases for the district is 184 as of Thursday afternoon. Of those, 27 are staff cases. That means the cases among staff have more than doubled since Wednesday.

Attorney General Alan Wilson also filed lawsuit Thursday against Columbia over its mask requirement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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