Federal judge overturns South Carolina school mask ban

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Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A federal judge Tuesday suspended South Carolina from enforcing a rule that banned school districts from requiring masks for students.

Parents of disabled children, helped by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the state saying the ban discriminated against medically vulnerable students by keeping them out of public schools as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The mask ban has been forcefully backed by Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and GOP lawmakers who said parents should decide whether students wear masks, not school officials.

The ruling wasn’t even a close call, U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis wrote, stopping the state from enforcing a one-year ban placed in the budget.

“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.

McMaster’s spokesman Brian Symmes said Tuesday’s ruling isn’t the last word in the case.

“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 in a statement,

The ruling wasn’t a surprise because the rights of medically fragile students were violated, 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,” Mizner said in a statement.

The Republican-dominated South Carolina House put the provision 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. Well over 21,000 students have been infected with COVID-19 this school year and nearly 100,000 have had to quarantine because of close exposure, according to state health data.

The budget provision didn’t outright ban districts from requiring masks, but said 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.

Several districts have gone ahead and required masks. Other school boards have asked lawmakers to come back into session and change the rules, which they so far have refused to do. They have been joined by groups of doctors, teachers and school administrators.

Attempts to get the state Supreme Court to allow mask requirements in schoolsor overturn the provisionhave failed.

Lewis wrote in her ruling that she was following federal anti-discrimination law and not making a comment on whether the General Assembly’s provision was “COVID incompetence.”

“Some have also contended that the politicalization, by both opponents and proponents, of the decision to forbid local school districts from requiring students to wear a mask at school is gravely wrong. Literally. But, that question is not before the Court,” the judge wrote.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.

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