Federal judge temporarily blocks ban on mask mandates in SC schools; SCAG responds

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCBD) – A federal judge on Tuesday issued a memorandum temporarily blocking the ban on mask mandates in South Carolina schools.

The opinion is in connection to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which was brought on behalf of children with disabilities “which increase their risk of contracting COVID-19 and/or increase their risk of serious complications or death from a COVID-19 infection.”

The plaintiffs argue that school districts “have a legal obligation to ensure that those children can attend school with the knowledge that the school district has followed the recommended protocols to ensure their safety.”

In the estimation of Judge Mary Geiger Lewis, “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.”

“It is noncontroversial that children need to go to school,” Judge Lewis writes, “and, they are entitled to any reasonable accommodation that allows them to do so.”

Judge Lewis likened the ability of a school district to impose a mask mandate to the availability of wheelchair ramps in schools:

“Years ago, ramps were added to schools to accommodate those with mobility-related disabilities so they could access a free public education. 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.”

Judge Lewis said that Proviso 1.108, which bans public schools from using state funds to impose mask mandates, is similar to preventing a school from building a wheelchair ramp.

She goes on to say “no one can reasonably argue that it is an undue burden to wear a mask to accommodate a child with disabilities.”

While Judge Lewis does not go so far as to say all schools must implement mask requirements, she said that “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.”

Former South Carolina representative and gubernatorial candidate Joe Cunningham issued a statement supporting Judge Lewis, saying in part “it is a shame that it took a federal judge to intervene so that South Carolina’s students can safely attend school, but our governor’s total lack of leadership left Judge Lewis no choice.”

A spokesman for Governor Henry McMaster said that McMaster “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.”

The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office released a statement on Wednesday:

“In response to a federal judge’s ruling blocking enforcement of Proviso 1.108, which prohibits the use of state funds to enforce K-12 school mask mandates, Attorney General Alan Wilson said, ‘We disagree with the judge’s position and we plan to appeal.”