Federal judge temporarily blocks ban on mask mandates in SC schools
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The state law that keeps South Carolina school districts from implementing mask mandates in their schools was temporarily blocked by a federal judge on Tuesday.
The block comes after the ACLU of South Carolina filed a lawsuit on behalf of two disability advocacy organizations and nine South Carolina parents of children with disabilities, including asthma and autism. The lawsuit claimed the mask mandate violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability.
Judge Mary Geiger Lewis stated in her Tuesday ruling that the proviso, which prohibits districts from enforcing mask mandates at the risk of losing state funding, discriminates against children with disabilities.
“This is not a close call. The General Assembly’s COVID measures disallowing school districts from mandating masks, as found in Proviso 1.108, discriminates against children with disabilities,” Lewis said.
Lawyers for the ACLU argued that prohibiting any school from imposing a mask mandate illegally forced parents of children with underlying health conditions who may be susceptible to COVID-19 to choose between their child’s education and their child’s health and safety.
Lewis said in her order that the state’s proviso is a “barrier” for students with disabilities wishing to gain the same education as those children without disabilities, and compared the issue to ramps being added to schools so those with mobility-related disabilities could access a public education.
“Today, a mask mandate works as a sort of ramp to allow children with disabilities access to their schools,” Lewis said. “Thus, the same legal authority requiring schools to have ramps requires that school districts have the option to compel people to wear masks at school.”
Following the the U.S. District Court ruling, Gov. Henry McMaster’s spokesman Brian Symmes released a statement on the governor’s disagreement with the ruling and possible steps he may take to keep the decision on masking students in the hands of their parents.
“The governor strongly disagrees with the court’s decision and will defend a parent’s right to decide what’s best for their children up to the United States Supreme Court, if necessary,” Symmes said on Tuesday night.
Officials with the South Carolina Department of Education also said they are reviewing the court’s decision and would provide guidance to schools and districts on its implications on Wednesday.
“CCSD is aware of the federal court ruling,” said Charleston County School Board Chair Rev. Dr. Eric Mack. “District and outside counsel are currently reviewing the ruling and will advise of the impact it will have on the district. We may make further comment after their advisement. We appreciate the ruling, and will continue to focus on educating students and supporting teachers and leaders.”
“Federal disability rights laws are clear: If students with disabilities need schools to require masks in order for them to have equal access to their education, the state cannot stop schools from requiring those masks,” said Susan Mizner, Director of the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program. “The court’s decision today makes clear that state legislators and Gov. McMaster can’t sacrifice the health and safety of students with disabilities for the convenience of others. Our plaintiffs and parents across South Carolina have spoken up on behalf of their children to make a simple request: that schools be able to follow basic public health guidelines without losing critical state funding.”
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