COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina districts can continue to require face coverings to protect against the coronavirus in the state’s schools under an appellate court’s decision this week.
On Tuesday, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied state Attorney General Alan Wilson’s request that South Carolina’s law prohibiting school mask mandates be allowed to take effect while a lawsuit over the COVID-19 pandemic measure goes forward.
Last month, a federal judge suspended the state from enforcing its rule banning school districts from requiring masks for students. Wilson and Gov. Henry McMaster, both Republicans, had appealed that temporary restraining order, asking the 4th Circuit to restore the ban to avoid changing mask policies across the state now that students are back at school.
The back-and-forth stems from a lawsuit filed by parents of disabled children, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, arguing that South Carolina’s ban discriminated against medically vulnerable students by keeping them out of public schools as the pandemic continues.
According to state health data, about 75,000 students, teachers and school staff have been infected with COVID-19 this school year, and nearly 200,000 have had to quarantine because of close exposure.
The Republican-dominated state House put the provision into the budget in June, when the state was seeing an average of about 150 new virus cases a day. Not long afterward, the delta variant caused a spike in cases similar to last winter before vaccines were widely available.
The budget provision didn’t outright ban districts from requiring masks, but said that state money couldn’t be used to enforce a mask requirement. State money is tied into most regular school funding, although some lawmakers told school boards they could require masks and hire employees to enforce the requirement with federal COVID-19 relief money.
Under pressure from parents and some districts, the General Assembly has refused to come back in special session to reconsider its rules.
McMaster, while urging people to talk to their doctors and get vaccinated, has repeated for months that parents should decide whether their children wear masks at school, calling the lawsuit’s arguments “totally inaccurate.” Earlier this year, he said it was “the height of ridiculosity” for a school district to require a mask over any parent’s wishes that their child go without one.
Joined by state health officials, doctors, teachers and school administrators, Republican state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman — also a defendant in the lawsuit — has urged giving school districts flexibility.
In her ruling halting the measure from taking effect, U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis compared the General Assembly preventing mask requirements to telling schools they can no longer install wheelchair ramps.
“No one can reasonably argue that it is an undue burden to wear a mask to accommodate a child with disabilities,” she wrote.