ACLU sues over South Carolina’s ban on school mask mandates

Published: Aug. 24, 2021 at 11:19 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 24, 2021 at 3:33 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. - The American Civil Liberties Union 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.

South Carolina legislators included a provision in the state’s general budget that prevented school districts from using state funding to mandate masks in schools.

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


A growing number of school districts in South Carolina are defying the budget proviso.

Other districts are coming out strong and then backing down.

Among those are the Newberry County School District, which said Monday it would enforce a mask mandate for all students and staff, then said Tuesday it would not enforce the requirement for students. The situation was similar last week in Allendale County, where Superintendent Sr. Margaret Gilmore said repeatedly in a Facebook video that “all employees and all students will wear a mask,” then later said it was just a strong recommendation.

The U.S. Education Department said last week tit might use its civil rights arm to fight policies like South Carolina’s.

In an announcement on its website, the department said policies that ban mask mandates could amount to discrimination if they lead to unsafe conditions that prevent students from attending school. The agency can launch its own investigations into potential violations, and it also responds to civil rights complaints from parents and the public.

The state policies run counter to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends universal mask wearing for students and teachers in the classroom. In its guidance, the CDC cited the spread of the highly contagious delta variant.

Secretary of Education Miguel A. Cardona sent a letter last week to McMaster and state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman criticizing the state budget rule that bans schools from requiring masks be worn.

“South Carolina’s actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts these goals at risk and may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by Federal law,” Cardona said.

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