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ACLU sues South Carolina over ban on school mask mandates

The lawsuit says the ban disproportionately impacts students with underlying health conditions or disabilities who may be exposed to COVID-19

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a federal lawsuit over a South Carolina law that bans school districts from imposing mask mandates. 

The lawsuit argues the ban effectively excludes vulnerable students from public schools and disproportionately impacts students with underlying health conditions or disabilities, who are at risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract COVID-19. Nine parents of minor children with disabilities, along with Able South Carolina and Disability Rights of South Carolina are represented by the ACLU, ACLU of South Carolina, South Carolina Appleseed Justice Center, Wyche P.A. and Arnold & Porter

In June 2021, South Carolina legislators included a provision (Proviso 1.108) in the state’s general budget that prevented school districts from using state funding to mandate masks in schools. The groups are asking the court to declare that Proviso 1.180 violates the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and order the state to allow school districts to adopt mask mandates for their students and staff. 

Gov. Henry McMaster has said parents should have the choice of whether or not children should wear masks in schools. 

The lawsuit filed on Tuesday, August 24, argues "the enforcement of this provision places all students, teachers, staff and their families at risk, but particularly targets children with disabilities that put them at higher risk for severe illness, lingering disabilities, or even death due to COVID-19."

According to the ACLU filing, "under the American with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, public schools cannot exclude students with disabilities, deny them equal access to their education, or segregate them unnecessarily, and they are obligated to provide reasonable modifications to policies, practices, and procedures in order to give students with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from their public education.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has not absolved South Carolina schools from these requirements, and South Carolina officials cannot waive these obligations for them."

In recent days, Newberry, Charleston and Richland One school districts instated their own mask orders requiring the use of face masks in schools to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Beth Franco, Executive Director of Disability Rights in South Carolina said, “When it comes to public education, students with disabilities and families should not have to make a choice between health and having an equal opportunity to obtain an appropriate education in person. Our school districts should be able to determine the need for appropriate mask mandates and must be able to comply with Federal laws that protect students with disabilities. Let’s not fail these students after all they have been though with this pandemic.”

Defendants named in the lawsuit include South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, SC Attorney General Alan Wilson, state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, and the school boards of Greenville, Horry, Lexington, Oconee and Pickens counties.

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