Federal judge rules South Carolina schools can require face masks

School districts in South Carolina now have the authority to require masks and should check with their lawyers on what kind of accommodations they need to make for medically vulnerable students, the state's education chief said Wednesday.

The memo from Education Superintendent Molly Spearman came a day after a federal judge ruled with the parents of disabled students who said a state ban on mask mandates discriminated against them because they didn't feel safe sending them to public schools without required face coverings as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The temporary restraining order went into effect immediately. Gov. Henry McMaster and state Attorney General Alan Wilson promised to appeal, while the lawmaker who introduced the ban again threatened to take money from districts that require masks.

Spearman's memo said districts now have "discretionary authority to require masks."

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"In its order, the Court used strong language to share grave concerns about barriers to meaningful access to in-person education, programs, services, and activities for students with disabilities," Spearman wrote.

The Republican superintendent has been asking the Republican governor and Republican-dominated General Assembly to allow districts to pass mask rules if they wish.

Doctors, teachers, school administrators and the state Health Department also have urged McMaster and Republican lawmakers to change their stance that parents should individually determine whether their children wear masks in school.

The House put a provision into this year's budget that districts could not use state money to enforce mask requirements. State funding is entwined in almost every part of a school district.

While some districts either ignored the provision or tried to use federal COVID-19 relief money to get around it, many said their hands were tied and couldn't do more than urge lawmakers to come back in special session and change the rules. So far, the General Assembly has not budged.

Many school districts were still trying to digest the ruling Wednesday. The state's largest district, Greenville County, called a special meeting Thursday where members will get legal advice on the ruling behind closed doors.

The lawmaker who proposed the mask mandate ban said Tuesday's decision to overturn it showed states should be able to ignore federal laws and rulings — an idea called nullification that led to South Carolina leaving the union in 1860, starting the Civil War. Rep. Stewart Jones also threatened districts that defy the ban in posts on Facebook.

"As soon as the South Carolina General Assembly reconvenes, MASSIVE budget cuts are coming to school districts that have defied parental authority and state law. Don’t act surprised. The state budget is about to shrink BIG TIME," the Laurens Republican wrote. He does not serve on the House’s budget-writing Ways and Means Committee.

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The provision was put into the budget in June when the state was seeing an average of about 150 new COVID-19 cases a day. Not long after, the delta variant caused a spike in cases similar to last winter before vaccines were widely available.

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, according to state health data.

In her ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis wrote that her decision to side with the parents who sued the state with the help of The American Civil Liberties Union wasn't a close call.

"It is noncontroversial that children need to go to school. And, they are entitled to any reasonable accommodation that allows them to do so. No one can reasonably argue that it is an undue burden to wear a mask to accommodate a child with disabilities," Lewis wrote.

Lewis compared the General Assembly preventing mask requirements to telling schools they can no longer install wheelchair ramps.

"Masks must, at a minimum, be an option for school districts to employ to accommodate those with disabilities so they, too, can access a free public education," the judge wrote.

A different lawsuit over the mask mandate ban is still being considered by the South Carolina Supreme Court.