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Beaufort County school board tables motion to mandate masks

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Body will vote after SC Supreme Court rules on similar case

By Mike McCombs

Once again, the Beaufort County Board of Education has chosen to wait.

At a specially scheduled meeting that lasted more than six hours, the school board voted Monday night to table board member William Smith’s motion to make masks mandatory in Beaufort County Schools until after the S.C. Supreme Court has ruled on a similar case involving Columbia schools.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, has filed suit against the City of Columbia, directly with the S.C. Supreme Court, alleging that the city’s mask mandate is illegal as a result of the state legislature’s budget Proviso 1.108, signed into law by Gov. Henry McMaster.

“The lawsuit mentions and would also apply to all cities, towns, counties, and school boards that have passed or are seeking to pass mask mandates,” the Attorney General’s office said Thursday in a release.

The board went into executive session a few minutes after 9 p.m. so that the board could get pertinent legal and medical advice. While behind closed doors, the board heard from members of Halligan Mahoney & Williams, a Columbia law firm “best known for providing comprehensive legal services to public school districts across South Carolina, as well as to charter and private schools and colleges,” according to its website.

After emerging from executive session roughly two hours and 15 minutes later, the board once again began to debate Smith’s motion.

In short order, Ingrid Boatright, who made the original motion last Tuesday night to postpone voting on Smith’s motion until the board could get legal advice, again made a motion, this time to table Smith’s motion, for now.

Boatright said though the board had received a fair amount of information on the topic, between public commentary and advice given during executive session, she was still not ready to make a decision. She pointed out the S.C. Supreme Court was expected to rule on the Columbia case in a matter of days.

“Knowing there is imminent clarification coming,” Boatright said, “… my preference is that we table this matter.”

Boatright moved that the board table Smith’s motion until the S.C. Supreme Court makes its ruling. Melvin Campbell seconded the motion.

Tricia Fidrych said that knowing how the court would rule would be “crucial going forward with this discussion.”

Only Smith opposed postponing the vote again, saying the board was taking a chance with the lives of kids, staff and teachers, even mentioning a temporary mask mandate. He said he felt like the board was failing to take a stand, instead kicking the can down the road.

Boatright said that was not the intention of her motion.

“We need to know what legally we can do,” she said, “and how we’re going to do it.”

The board voted 9-2 to table Smith’s motion with only Smith and Rachel Wisnefski opposing.

But the matter wasn’t closed. After a vague motion about the district’s uniform policy, Smith moved that once the Supreme Court rules on the Columbia case, the board would vote on his motion within 48 hours. His motion was seconded by Melvin Campbell.

David Striebinger amended the motion so that the board would vote within 48 hours of the board learning of the Supreme Court ruling. Then Fidrych made a substitute motion that changed 48 hours to two business days to avert the chance of the board voting on the weekend.

The board voted on this substitute motion, which passed 9-1-1. Wisnefski voted no, while Chair Christina Gwozdz abstained.

The board then voted unanimously to adjourn.

The meeting opened at 5:30 p.m. with more than 70 people registered to make public comments. At three minutes per speaker, that meant the board was in for a long night, but the board decided against shortening the time limit and committed to hearing all the speakers.

All in all, those opposed to masks slightly outnumbered those in favor among the public comments. Among those present, a majority were against masking, while those in favor were a clear majority among those who commented by phone.

Though lengthy, the process was orderly and respectful, for the most part. Citizens on both sides shared a lot of “data,” quoting everyone from John Lewis to Ronald Reagan to Beaufort County Education Superintendent Frank Rodriguez to even Captain America.

Many opposed to masks cited freedom of choice, faulty science, government overreach and child abuse. And many threatened to pull their kids out of Beaufort County schools or to take legal action.

“You are lying to our children and forcing them to join you in wearing tin foil hats,” Eric Lawson told the board.

On the other side, those in favor of masks lamented that after following the science last year, the school district was not doing the same this year. While they universally agreed that virtual schooling had been a disaster, they said it at least was a choice that could keep their children safe, something they feel they are without this year.

One parent said that for her kids who are too young to be vaccinated, forcing them to go to school where other kids were not masking was essentially making her kids “sitting ducks in a petrie dish.”

Another parent told the board, “I have no option other than to send my (kids) back to school. It’s your job to protect them.”

Mike McCombs is the editor of The Island News and can be reached at TheIslandNews@gmail.com.

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