Lowcountry lawmaker says DHEC should “do its job” and require masks in schools

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – As we wait for the South Carolina Supreme Court to rule on cases involving mask mandates in schools, one state lawmaker says we could have avoided the court altogether if the Department of Health and Environmental Control did its job.

“We have laws on the books,” said State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis.

He said the state proviso and authority of the governor have nothing to do with powers given to DHEC.

Stavrinakis says those laws, updated by the legislature in 2002, said the agency must “do more to protect the health, safety, and general well being of South Carolinians. In fact, spelling out emergency powers including “using every available means to prevent the transmission of infectious disease.”

Despite that charge, Stavrinakis says DHEC is derelict in its duty by not declaring a health emergency in our state and mandating masks, one of their key recommendations for keeping schools open.

“I mean that’s all it is. They’re just not doing their job. They’re listening to politics instead of doing their job as you so aptly mentioned, it’s required by the statute that they do this,” he said.

We took that message to former South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon. He says the proviso making the mandates difficult for school districts to enforce would not apply if the order comes from DHEC.

“That has nothing to do with this,” said Condon. “That proviso does not prohibit DHEC from doing anything, it talks in terms of schools and school districts, not DHEC.”

He went on to say, “I think the answer to that question from a legal perspective only is that they do have that authority; now, whether they should or should not is up to them as policymakers.”

“People are getting sick and people are dying and more could be done to prevent some of this –more could be done to prevent a lot of it … I’m very frustrated with the level of timidity out of DHEC and local governments and some of the school districts,” said Stavrinakis.

Stavrinakis says he spoke with the DHEC director and their legal counsel and all that came out of those conversations was another recommendation.

We reached and the board chair but so far have not heard back. Below is a statement from DHEC regarding its ability to use statutory power to mandate masks in schools.

“DHEC continues to focus on saving lives and preventing the spread of COVID-19.  DHEC’s guidance for K-12 schools is on our website and includes encouraging vaccination for all those who are eligible (including students aged 12 and above). DHEC also recommends requiring masks for all individuals in the school, including students, staff, and visitors when indoors and others are around.

The emergency authority being referenced is, as it is described, specifically for emergency events. It’s important to understand that it was created to allow DHEC to respond quickly to local situations or outbreaks where rapid action is required to prevent immediate, imminent danger to the local population.  

Although the situation in many of our K-12 schools, unfortunately, meets this description, the situation in each school district is different, making a statewide order that applies equally to all schools very difficult.

As a result, DHEC recommends that the Legislature consider revising the Proviso to allow individual school districts, superintendents, and principals to make decisions about requiring masks, in consultation with local and state health authorities. This approach will protect children and others from COVID-19, and very importantly, will help keep children in school. It will also maximize parent choice.

Regardless of a mandate or not, DHEC’s guidance on this issue has been unwavering — we strongly encourage every single eligible South Carolinian to get fully vaccinated and wear a mask when indoors at a public place regardless of vaccination status. We continue to stress appropriate distancing and hygiene practices per CDC guidelines” – Ron Aiken, DHEC Director of Media Relations