SC Supreme Court hears arguments on school masks, virtual learning

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina Supreme Court on Tuesday morning heard arguments about mask mandates in schools and restrictions on virtual school.

South Carolina’s Attorney General Alan Wilson sued the city of Columbia after it went ahead and passed a mask mandate in schools there. The attorney general said that move violated state law, which doesn’t allow state money to be used for mask mandates in schools.

Some districts -- like Richland County and, locally, Chester County -- voted to require masks in all school buildings, inviting a legal challenge.

The Supreme Court heard the arguments on Tuesday, asked a lot of questions, but did not give a ruling.

Another issue they are hearing is about the limit on how many students can participate in virtual schooling. The state capped it at 5% per district, and schools that go above that number risk losing state funding.

ACLU seeks halt to South Carolina ban on school mask decrees

Disability rights groups and parents of children with disabilities want an immediate halt to a South Carolina law banning school districts from requiring face masks, as students across the state begin a new school year amid a renewed rise in coronavirus cases.

Last week, the groups and parents filed for a temporary restraining order blocking the law from being enforced, while their lawsuit challenging the measure proceeds.

“Defendants are illegally forcing South Carolina families who have children with disabilities to choose between their child’s education and their child’s health and safety,” wrote attorneys for the groups, who are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ban, they wrote, “needlessly and unconscionably exposes South Carolina school children and their families to a heightened risk of infection, hospitalization, and death.”

State officials have until Sept. 9 to respond to the request in court.

A budget measure passed this summer prevents school districts from using any state funding to require masks in schools. But some districts and cities across South Carolina have disregarded the ban, moving forward with implementing school mask mandates. The state’s attorney general is suing the capital city of Columbia over one such provision, with arguments expected later this week in the South Carolina Supreme Court.

The ACLU lawsuit, filed earlier this month against top state officials including Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, alleges that the mask mandate ban disproportionately affects students with underlying health conditions or disabilities, who are at risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract COVID-19.

The plaintiffs allege that the ban violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, under which public schools cannot exclude students with disabilities or segregate them unnecessarily from their peers. Schools are also required to provide reasonable modifications to allow students with disabilities to participate fully.

Current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance recommends that everyone in a school building, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks indoors — guidance that South Carolina Education Department officials have noted publicly that they couldn’t follow, given the budget proviso.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control has said that it “strongly recommends mask use for all people when indoors in school settings.” As of public health data updated Wednesday, 1,905 COVID-19 cases had been reported in students and employees at public and charter schools across the state.

McMaster has defended the budget proviso, calling the lawsuit’s arguments “totally inaccurate” and saying, earlier this year, that it was “the height of ridiculosity” for a school district to require a mask over any parent’s wishes that their child go without one.

Stressing throughout the pandemic his belief in personal responsibility, not universal mandates, to curb the virus’ spread, McMaster has also urged South Carolinians to get vaccinated against COVID-19, though children under age 12 are not yet eligible.

On Monday, the federal Department of Education announced that its Office for Civil Rights was investigating five Republican-led states, including South Carolina, that have banned school masking requirements, saying the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions.

If the investigations determine that the bans have been discriminatory, it could lead to sanctions including a loss of federal education funding.

(WATCH BELOW: CDC recommends masks be worn in schools regardless of vaccination status)