South Carolina Clears Way for Schools to Allow Masks After Judge Rules on Ban Lawsuit

South Carolina schools can enact mask mandates and seek the advice of lawyers on accommodations for medically vulnerable students, the state education chief said Wednesday.

The decision from a federal judge favors the parents of disabled students, who argued in a lawsuit that banning masks was discriminatory because they didn't feel safe sending their students to school in a pandemic without the protection of masks.

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster and Attorney General Alan Wilson vowed to appeal, and a lawmaker who introduced the ban threatened to withhold funding from districts that require masks.

A memo from Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said districts now have "discretionary authority to require masks."

"In its order, the Court used strong language to share grave concerns about barriers to meaningful access to in-person education, programs, services, and activities for students with disabilities," Spearman wrote.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

South Carolina Masks
A federal judge suspended South Carolina from enforcing a rule that banned school districts from requiring masks for students on September 28. Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster talks to them on September 15 in Camden, South Carolina. Jeffrey Collins, File/AP Photo

The Republican superintendent has been asking the Republican governor and Republican-dominated General Assembly to allow districts to pass mask rules if they wish.

Doctors, teachers, school administrators and the state Health Department also have urged McMaster and Republican lawmakers to change their stance that parents should individually determine whether their children wear masks in school.

The House put a provision into this year's budget that districts could not use state money to enforce mask requirements. State funding is entwined in almost every part of a school district.

While some districts either ignored the provision or tried to use federal COVID-19 relief money to get around it, many said their hands were tied and couldn't do more than urge lawmakers to come back in special session and change the rules. So far, the General Assembly has not budged.

Many school districts were still trying to digest the ruling Wednesday. The state's largest district, Greenville County, called a special meeting Thursday where members will get legal advice on the ruling behind closed doors.

The lawmaker who proposed the mask mandate ban said Tuesday's decision to overturn it showed states should be able to ignore federal laws and rulings—an idea called nullification that led to South Carolina leaving the union in 1860, starting the Civil War. Representative Stewart Jones also threatened districts that defy the ban in posts on Facebook.

"As soon as the South Carolina General Assembly reconvenes, MASSIVE budget cuts are coming to school districts that have defied parental authority and state law. Don't act surprised. The state budget is about to shrink BIG TIME," the Laurens Republican wrote. He does not serve on the House's budget-writing Ways and Means Committee.

The provision was put into the budget in June when the state was seeing an average of about 150 new COVID-19 cases a day. Not long after, the Delta variant caused a spike in cases similar to last winter before vaccines were widely available.

About 75,000 students, teachers and school staff have been infected with COVID-19 this school year and nearly 200,000 have had to quarantine because of close exposure, according to state health data.

In her ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis wrote that her decision to side with the parents who sued the state with the help of The American Civil Liberties Union wasn't a close call.

"It is noncontroversial that children need to go to school. And, they are entitled to any reasonable accommodation that allows them to do so. No one can reasonably argue that it is an undue burden to wear a mask to accommodate a child with disabilities," Lewis wrote.

Lewis compared the General Assembly preventing mask requirements to telling schools they can no longer install wheelchair ramps.

"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," the judge wrote.

A different lawsuit over the mask mandate ban is still being considered by the South Carolina Supreme Court.