By Al Dozier

The pressure is on lawmakers to return to Columbia and hold an emergency session to revise a law that prohibits mask mandates in schools.

The latest push comes from the State Department of Health and Environmental Control.

With COVID-19 cases spiking in schools statewide, the board of South Carolina’s health agency instructed its director and chairman to contact state lawmakers to urge them to revise the law passed earlier this year that prohibits mask mandates in schools.

South Carolina’s COVID-19 death toll is on the rise

DHEC reported 4,650 new Covid-19 cases August 27, an increase of 1,391 cases from the day before. The state also reported 25 coronavirus-related deaths.

At least 2,138 people in the state were reported hospitalized with the coronavirus as of August 27, with 513 patients in the ICU.

But so far, state leaders have not made a decision to call for a special session.

The House is already scheduled to return for a brief period later this year to vote on ARPA (American Rescue) funds and redistricting. The issue could come up during that session. If not, it could not be considered until January, 2022 when the new session begins.

Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, and Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Lexington, who represent the Irmo area, do not see the need for an emergency session because of the details involved.

“I do not see us revisiting the budget,” Ballentine said, an action that would be required to address the revision, which is built into the state budget. “That would take a two-thirds vote of both bodies and any changes would also require that amount of support. Additionally, Gov. McMaster is likely to veto any efforts to allow districts to decide”

The General Assembly voted to give parents control over their children’s health and safety, Ballentine said.

“Masks can still be worn to protect individuals and others. The science shows our kids are at the least risk. Not no risk. But least risk. Teachers and other adults (and many kids) can be vaccinated to do their part.” Huggins said families and schools can deal with the coronavirus the same way they deal with other health issues, such as the flu or pneumonia. “Just stick to the basics,” he said.

Sen. Sandy Senn, R- Charleston, sees the problem as a “home rule” issue.

She said local governments, not the state, should make such decisions based on their own particular situation.

But Rep. Leon Howard, R-Richland, who is chairman of the House Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee, said lawmakers are simply refusing to admit they are making a mistake.

“It’s hard to admit you did something wrong,” Howard said. “But people are living in danger.”

Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said he couldn’t comprehend why his fellow lawmakers would oppose supporting such an important remedy to a major health problem.

“This is not a political issue,” he said, though more Democrats than Republicans favor mask mandates.

While some may view mask rules as a violation of “personal liberty,” Hutto said it boils down to normal safety precautions, such as seatbelts in a car.

The legislature must reconvene as soon as possible to address an ever-worsening pandemic, he said.

“We’ve got to do something.”

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