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Federal Judge Says South Carolina Can’t Block Schools From Issuing Mask Mandates

The judge said that masks are a reasonable requirement schools can implement to prevent the spread of COVID.

A student puts on a mask at Philip Rogers Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois, on August 30, 2021.

A federal judge has placed a temporary block on the enforcement of a South Carolina law that restricted school districts from being able to implement mask mandates to protect children from coronavirus, particularly those with disabilities.

Judge Mary Geiger Lewis for the U.S. District Court for South Carolina sided with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of South Carolina, which had sued the state on behalf of two disability advocacy groups, as well as parents of children with disabilities in the state. The organization argued that the law, which had passed as part of the state budget, created unsafe environments of learning for disabled students.

Lewis agreed with that rationale, writing in her opinion that it wasn’t an infringement of rights for schools to ask students to mask up.

“No one can reasonably argue that it is an undue burden to wear a mask to accommodate a child with disabilities,” she wrote.

Lewis compared mask mandates in schools to other accommodations made to ensure students with disabilities are still able to receive a quality education.

“Today, a mask mandate works as a sort of ramp to allow children with disabilities access to their schools,” Lewis noted. “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.”

The federal judge added that “this is not a close call,” writing that the state’s decision to disallow districts from implementing mask mandates “discriminates against children with disabilities.”

A spokesperson for Republican Gov. Henry McMaster said that the state planned to appeal the injunction.

“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,” that spokesperson said.

The ruling from Lewis comes just one month after the state Supreme Court ruled in McMaster’s and the state legislature’s favor, keeping the ban on mask mandates in place. Back in May, prior to the state budget’s inclusion of a ban on mask mandates, McMaster had issued an executive order restricting districts from issuing rules on masks. He justified this by claiming that “schools are some of the safest places when it comes to COVID-19.”

McNaster’s claims are contradicted by the fact that coronavirus cases in South Carolina have gone up significantly since then, particularly for children. Since the emergence of the Delta variant, more kids have been diagnosed with COVID across the country than ever — but particularly, on a per capita basis, in South Carolina. A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics this week reveals that the state has the second-highest rate of COVID infections in children across the entire U.S.

For every 100,000 kids in the state, that report found, around 14,600 have been diagnosed with COVID since the start of the pandemic, more than double the current national rate.

Beyond the numbers, however, the crisis is apparent to any casual observer in South Carolina, as schools are having to deal with the consequences of the virus running rampant without a means to control its spread. Coronavirus outbreaks are so common that more than four dozen schools in the state transitioned back to virtual learning earlier this month. Several hospitals in the state have also reported that their ICU beds were filling up near their capacity limits with children who contracted the virus.

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