Sept. 29 (UPI) — A federal district judge has blocked South Carolina’s ban on mask mandates in schools, saying it discriminates against students with disabilities.
U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina ruled Tuesday in favor of disability rights groups and parents of students with disabilities with underlying health conditions who had argued the ban effectively excludes their children from public schools in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
The ban was brought about through a provision added to the general appropriations bill in June that denied state funding to schools that enforce mask mandates, and was proposed as several Republican-led states sought to institute similar prohibitions of their own, arguing mandates stripped parents of their right to choose how to protect their children from the pandemic.
In her 22-page ruling on Tuesday, Lewis agreed that parents have the right to decide what is best for their children as do those of the plaintiffs who requested that South Carolina school districts be allowed to choose whether to mandate mask wearing, a virus-mitigating measure recommended by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and other such organizations.
“This was not a close call,” she said. “The General Assembly’s COVID measures disallowing school districts from mandating masks … discriminates against children with disabilities.”
Lewis explained the law barring school districts from enforcing mask mandates is a barrier to access to education for students with disabilities.
She said years ago, ramps were added to schools to accommodate those with mobility-related disabilities. Today, she said, mask mandates are akin to a ramp for students with disabilities to access their free public education.
“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,” she wrote.
The South Carolina Department of Education said via Twitter it is reviewing the decision and will provide guidance to schools and school districts on Wednesday.
“The governor strongly disagrees with the court’s decision and will defend a parent’s right to decide what’s best for their children up to the United States Supreme Court, if necessary” he said.
Allen Chaney, director of legal advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, which was among the plaintiffs, said the law on Tuesday 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,” Chaney said in a statement.
South Carolina is one of five states the federal Education Department is investigation over its policies prohibiting schools from imposing mask mandates.
Throughout the nation, several Republican-led states such as Arkansas, Florida, Iowa and Montana have sought to ban mask mandates in schools attracting a slew of legal challenges from school districts and parents.
The ruling in South Carolina came a day after a judge in Arizona ruled its ban on mask mandates in schools was unconstitutional as it was passed within a budget bill.