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SC Dept. of Education encourages masks as COVID cases rise, but state law restricts school mandate

While the department didn't plan on mandating masks for the fall semester, leaders hoped districts would have had the option to choose.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman expressed concern on Wednesday, as the upcoming school year nears and COVID-19 cases rise.

While her department didn't plan on mandating masks for the fall semester, they hoped districts would have had the option to choose. But state law restricts mask mandates in schools, and those who enforce them could risk losing funds. 

RELATED: All South Carolinians should wear masks indoors again, DHEC says

"I'm very concerned," Spearman said. "We had hoped that that would be a decision that would be made in each individual school district by those districts, but as you know, the state legislature did pass legislation in the budget that now prohibits districts from requiring mask mandates inside of school facilities.”

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) recommended everyone, including students, wear masks when indoors where cases are high.

The adjusted recommendations come as the more easily transmissible Delta variant of the virus spreads around the country.

RELATED: CDC: Delta variant accounts for 83% of US COVID cases

Superintendent Spearman says they're assisting districts with safety equipment like protective shields and cleaning supplies, but they're not mandating what is used.

Patrick Kelly with the Palmetto State Teachers Association says he worries a breakout in COVID-19 cases could put strain on teachers, which are already in short supply.

RELATED: School starts in weeks, but many SC districts don't have enough teachers

“Our schools already lack sufficient staffing," Kelly said. "Anything that could potentially take more staff off the table is going to be a concern for school operations, for student safety and for student academic performance.”

Superintendent Spearman said districts are having to get creative to fill in the gaps as they search for new talent.

RELATED: Prisma Health warning of increased COVID-19 hospitalizations

“I’m strongly encouraging everyone to wear their masks," Spearman said. "I’m strongly encouraging folks to make the decision to get vaccinated. It will help us be able to return to school and have a normal year. If not, I fear that we’re going to have lots of disruption.”

The state legislature has also limited the amount of students who can return virtually.

Superintendent Spearman said they believe this does not apply to students who are quarantined due to the virus.

RELATED: Are you in a 'high transmission' COVID-19 area? Here's a map – and the data behind it