COLUMBIA, S.C. — A federal district court today granted plaintiffs’ request to block South Carolina's ban on mask mandates in schools. The court ruled that South Carolina’s budget provision prohibiting schools from imposing mask mandates for students and teachers discriminates against students with disabilities in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
“Federal disability rights laws are clear: If students with disabilities need schools to require masks in order for them to have equal access to their education, the state cannot stop schools from requiring those masks,” said Susan Mizner, Director of the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program. “The court’s decision today makes clear that state legislators and Gov. McMaster can’t sacrifice the health and safety of students with disabilities for the convenience of others. Our plaintiffs and parents across South Carolina have spoken up on behalf of their children to make a simple request: that schools be able to follow basic public health guidelines without losing critical state funding.”
U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis affirmed in her decision that “No one can reasonably argue that it is an undue burden to wear a mask to accommodate a child with disabilities.” She adds: “Years ago, ramps were added to schools to accommodate those with mobility-related disabilities so they could access a free public education. Today, a mask mandate works as a sort of ramp to allow children with disabilities access to their schools. 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.”
Disability Rights South Carolina, Able South Carolina, and nine parents of children with disabilities filed suit against the ban last month. They are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of South Carolina, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, Disability Rights South Carolina, Wyche, P.A., and Arnold & Porter.
The groups argue that the ban on mask mandates effectively excludes students with disabilities and underlying medical conditions from public schools, in violation of federal disability rights laws, which require schools to make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, and procedures in order to give students with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from their public education.
Below is additional comment from:
Allen Chaney, Director of Legal Advocacy, ACLU of South Carolina:
“Today the law prevailed. I am thankful that the Court was able to cut through the political rhetoric and ensure that South Carolina parents no longer have to choose between their child's health and education.”
Rita Bolt Barker, Member, Wyche, P.A.:
“The court’s decision ensures that students in South Carolina will not have to choose between their health and their access to opportunities. It has been a privilege to work on behalf of those who are most vulnerable and it is reassuring to know our schools will be able to prioritize the safety of all children.”
B. Randall Dong, Legal Director, Disability Rights South Carolina:
"All of us at Disability Rights South Carolina were very pleased to receive the federal court's order permitting local school districts to decide, based upon local conditions, whether to issue and enforce mask mandates for the protection of all students, most especially those most vulnerable to severe disease and death from COVID-19."
Adam Protheroe, Litigation Attorney, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center:
“This proviso unnecessarily made parents choose between their children’s education or their health. And in doing so it put children with disabilities at greater risk. Fortunately, today justice prevailed.”