The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents disability rights groups and parents of children with disabilities, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday over a law in South Carolina that bans school districts from requiring face masks, arguing that the ban excludes vulnerable students from public schools .
The plaintiffs assert that the prohibition of the mask requirement disproportionately affects students with previous health conditions or disabilities who are at risk of becoming seriously ill in the event of an infection with COVID-19.
South Carolina lawmakers added a provision to the state budget, passed in June, preventing school districts from using state funds to require masks in schools. However, some school districts and cities disregarded the ban and pushed ahead with the implementation of a school mask mandate.
The ban on mask mandates violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, plaintiffs allege in the lawsuit.
According to the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, public schools cannot exclude students with disabilities or unnecessarily separate them from their classmates. Schools are also required to make reasonable changes to allow students with disabilities to fully participate.
“By making schools a dangerous place for these students with disabilities, they are essentially forcing their parents to choose between their child’s education and their child’s health,” said Susan Mizner, director of the ACLU’s disability rights project. “And that will exclude them from their public education.”
Offering a long-distance option to students with disabilities or illnesses is not a good alternative, Mizner said. Restricting medically weak students and people with disabilities to distance learning denies them equal opportunities, she said.
“We know from last year that for many, many, many students, distance learning is not the same as personal training,” she said. “That would deny them equal access to their education.”
The lawsuit names high-ranking state officials, including Republican Governor Henry McMaster, the attorney general and the school principal, and seeks to repeal the law banning masks.
Amanda McDougald Scott, one of nine named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, has a 5-year-old son with asthma who is too young to be vaccinated. The family was told that online learning was full for the beginning school year, which resulted in them enrolling in a private school 30 minutes away.
Samantha Boevers, another plaintiff, has a child in elementary school with Autism Spectrum Disorder, making it difficult for her son to adhere to COVID-19 containment measures like hand washing and social distancing. The family’s pediatrician, according to the lawsuit, advised them to only return their son for personal study in a fully masked setting.
The ACLU’s lawsuit is not the first time the South Carolina mask mandate ban has gone to court. Attorney General Alan Wilson had previously sued the City of Columbia for demanding masks in schools after a COVID-19 emergency was declared.
The current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that everyone in a school building, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks indoors. Public health officials have asked the governor and lawmakers to lift the mask ban.
In a video his office tweeted Friday, McMaster said he felt the decision to wear a mask should be left to parents.
“To claim that Washington bureaucrats should tell parents to force their children to wear masks in school against the parents’ will and wisdom is a drastic mistake,” said McMaster. “I think it’s wrong.”
Critics who postpone the choice of face coverings to the individual choice of parents say that exposing some people in school buildings puts their surroundings at risk. McMaster has urged the South Carolinians to get vaccinated against COVID-19 even though children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible.
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden directed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to review possible legal action by the Education Department’s Civil Rights Division against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19.
Similar to the ACLU lawsuit, the Department of Education has stated that mask-prohibiting guidelines could be viewed as discriminatory if they create unsafe conditions that prevent students from attending school.
South Carolina is one of seven states that have banned mask requirements. The other six are Florida, Texas, Utah, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Iowa. The mask ban in Arizona goes into effect on September 29th.
Ma covers education and justice for AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/anniema15
Associated Press coverage of race and ethnicity is supported in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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