Decision postponed until Board of Education can get legal, medical advice
By Mike McCombs
They finally got around to “the elephant in the room.”
After an hour and 45 minutes of business, the Beaufort County Board of Education eventually got to the topic on everyone’s mind as school’s opened during the recent resurgence of COVID-19: masks.
After a motion to mandate masks in Beaufort County Schools at Tuesday night’s school board meeting, the board voted 6-5 to postpone a vote until it can get the proper legal advice, as well as the advice of a health care expert.
The board was scheduled to meet again at 6 p.m. Wednesday, but it was unclear when a vote might happen.
At the end of Superintendent Frank Rodriguez’s update on Monday’s first day of school, several board members brought up masks. After a few minutes of discussion, board member William Smith was frustrated.
“If we followed the science in the beginning, then my question would be why do we stop following the science now?” he asked.
Finally, he could wait no longer.
“I move that we direct the Superintendent to make mandatory mask wearing in Beaufort County Schools,” Smith said.
Melvin Campbell seconded the motion, and arguments, pro and con, followed.
Board member Richard Geier said the school district would have to answer to angry parents who would accuse the board of breaking the law.
“Yes we are,” he said.
A proviso in the 2022 budget bill passed in the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Henry McMaster prevents local school districts from enacting mask mandates. The school districts in Charleston and Richland counties have enacted mask requirements in defiance of the General Assembly and the Governor.
Tuesday, however, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that the proviso could not prevent the University of South Carolina from imposing a mask mandate.
Geier said he didn’t like being the legal “guinea pig.” As a result, despite supporting masking, he’d vote no.
Melvin Campbell said that, “for years, the laws of South Carolina have been unjust, unfair and unrelated to what’s real. … We can’t lead if we’re going to continue to follow the wrong direction.”
Board chair Dr. Christina Gwozdz, an ear, nose and throat physician, said that despite supporting universal masking, she simply couldn’t support Smith’s motion.
“We are asking Frank Rodriguez to break the law,” she said.
Gwozdz asked why the focus wasn’t actually addressing the problem and requiring vaccinations instead of wasting time on masks.
Board member Earl Campbell said that come election time, we need to vote all these guys out, referring to Gov. McMaster and members of the General Assembly.
“They’re playing with our lives,” he said, “and this is nothing to play with. It just hurts me to feel we have to go through this because of politics. It’s wrong.”
Campbell did add, however, that he didn’t want to put Rodriguez in a bind.
At that point, Smith spoke again, informing the board and those watching that while the meeting had been going on, Clemson had followed USC’s lead and imposed a mask mandate.
“If Clemson can do it …,” he said.
Responding to those leery of directing Rodriguez to break the law, Smith amended his motion, removing the phrase “direct the superintendent” and instead made the edict come directly from the school board. Campbell’s second remained.
“I don’t want a kid’s blood on my hands,” Smith said.
At that point, Ingrid Boatright made the motion to postpone voting on Smith’s motion until the board got the proper legal and health advice. The motion passed 9-2, with Smith and Geier opposing.
Mike McCombs is the editor of The Island News and can be reached at TheIslandNews@gmail.com.
Photo courtesy of Beaufort County School District.