From staff reports
A Federal District Court on Tuesday evening blocked South Carolina’s ban on mask mandates in schools.
The court ruled that South Carolina’s budget provision prohibiting schools from imposing mask mandates for students and teachers discriminates against students with disabilities in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
“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,” Director of the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program Susan Mizner said in a news release. “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.”
U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis affirmed in her decision that “No one can reasonably argue that it is an undue burden to wear a mask to accommodate a child with disabilities.”
“Years ago, ramps were added to schools to accommodate those with mobility-related disabilities so they could access a free public education,” she added. “Today, a mask mandate works as a sort of ramp to allow children with disabilities access to their schools. 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.”
Just last week, Gov. Henry McMaster spoke at a Republicans of Sun City event in Bluffton and touted South Carolina’s response to the COVID-19 surge.
“We’re going to let parents to decide whether we’re going to wear masks, for kids that go to public schools,” McMaster said.
Several media outlets have reported McMaster’s spokesperson, Bryan Simmes, said Tuesday night that the Governor was willing to fight this ruling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Several school districts around the state, most notably Charleston, the City of Columbia and Richland County, had challenged the budget proviso, resulting in legal action from the S.C. Attorney General’s office.
The Beaufort County Board of Education last month tabled a motion to require masks, despite the budget proviso, but that motion was tabled until the S.C. Supreme Court ruled on Richland County’s challenge to the law. Now, that ruling may never happen, and with a school board meeting coming up Tuesday, a local vote on mandatory masks might now come sooner, rather than later.
Disability Rights South Carolina, Able South Carolina, and nine parents of children with disabilities filed suit against the ban last month. They are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of South Carolina, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, Disability Rights South Carolina, Wyche, P.A., and Arnold & Porter.
The suit named McMaster, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman and a handful of school boards from around the state as defendants.
The groups argue that the ban on mask mandates effectively excludes students with disabilities and underlying medical conditions from public schools, in violation of federal disability rights laws, which require schools to make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, and procedures in order to give students with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from their public education.
“Today the law prevailed,” Director of Legal Advocacy for the ACLU of South Carolina Allen Chaney said in a release. “I am thankful that the Court was able to cut through the political rhetoric and ensure that South Carolina parents no longer have to choose between their child’s health and education.”