South Carolina school districts now have the authority to require masks and should consult with their lawyers about 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 comes a day after a federal judge sided with parents of disabled students who claimed a state ban on masks discriminated against them because they didn’t feel safe sending their children to public schools without required face coverings as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
The temporary restraining order went into effect right away. Gov. Henry McMaster and state Attorney General Alan Wilson both promised to appeal.
According to Spearman’s memo, districts now have “discretionary authority to require masks.”
“In its order, the Court used strong language to express grave concerns about barriers to meaningful access for students with disabilities to in-person education, programs, services, and activities,” Spearman wrote.
The Republican superintendent has asked the Republican governor and the Republican-controlled General Assembly to allow districts to pass mask rules if they so desire.
Doctors, teachers, school administrators, and the state Health Department have also urged McMaster and Republican lawmakers to reconsider their position that parents should decide whether or not their children wear masks to school. The House included a provision in this year’s budget prohibiting districts from using state funds to enforce mask requirements. Almost every aspect of a school district is influenced by state funding.
While some districts ignored the provision or attempted to circumvent it by using federal COVID-19 relief funds, many said their hands were tied and they couldn’t do anything but urge lawmakers to return in special session and change the rules. So far, the General Assembly has remained unmoved.
Many school districts were still processing the decision on Wednesday. Greenville County, the state’s largest district, called a special meeting Thursday to receive legal advice on the ruling behind closed doors.
The provision was included in the budget in June, when the state was experiencing an average of 150 new COVID-19 cases per day. Soon after, the delta variant caused a spike in cases similar to last winter before vaccines became widely available.
According to state health data, approximately 75,000 students, teachers, and school staff have been infected with COVID-19 this school year, and nearly 200,000 have been quarantined due to close exposure.
U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis wrote in her ruling on Tuesday that her decision to side with the parents who sued the state with the help of The American Civil Liberties Union was not a close call.
“It is unarguable that children must attend school. They also have the right to any reasonable accommodation that allows them to do so. “No one can reasonably argue that wearing a mask to accommodate a disabled child is an undue burden,” Lewis wrote.
Lewis likened the General Assembly’s decision to prohibit mask requirements to telling schools they could no longer install wheelchair ramps. “At a minimum, masks must be an option for school districts to use to accommodate those with disabilities so that they, too, can access a free public education,” the judge wrote.
The South Carolina Supreme Court is still deliberating on a different mask ban lawsuit.