COLUMBIA, SC (AP) – The South Carolina Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in two challenges to a state rule restricting school districts’ ability to require masks for students and educators.
South Carolina lawmakers put a requirement in the state budget that threatens school districts to withhold state funds if they need masks. That provision went into effect on July 1, when the state averaged fewer than 150 COVID-19 cases per day.
Now the state is seeing around 4,500 new cases every day, and deaths are rising as hospitals become congested at a time when children are returning to school and vaccinations are delayed.
In one case, Attorney General Alan Wilson has sued Columbia City over the city council’s decision to declare a state of emergency over the increase in cases and then demand masks for workers and anyone under the age of 12 in schools. City guides have said the mask requirement, which comes with a $ 100 fine, is designed to protect children too young to be approved for the coronavirus vaccine.
In the second challenge, Richland School District 2 is suing the state, telling the Supreme Court justices to suspend the mask ban until it can rule on the previous case.
On Tuesday, lawyers who support the mask mandates said lawmakers exceeded constitutional limits by including the mask rule – a policy unrelated to state finances – into the budget that aims to raise and spend money. State law requires that the legislation has a single subject.
City and school authorities can also use separate pots of money, such as B. Local funds are pulling to enforce the wearing of masks, said Chris Kenney, a Columbia City attorney.
“All they said is not to spend our money on a mask mandate,” said Kenney. “The city’s ordinance fully complies with this.”
Prosecutors disagreed, pointing out that government funds are helping to pay the salaries of teachers and administrators who have to enforce a mask mandate.
Several judges questioned whether it was possible to separate the use of state funds and other means in enforcing the mandate.
Assistant Attorney General Emory Smith said school districts cannot make such differences in their accounting because teachers work closely with students and how much time they spend in the classroom. “It’s all intertwined,” he said.
Some school districts have already implemented mask requirements despite the budget, but most are still waiting for the court’s decision. With most counties entering the third week of school, health officials have already tracked more than 3,000 cases of COVID-19 among students and staff, and thousands more in quarantine.
Chief Justice Don Beatty said the court’s verdict would be based purely on law, noting that the court would not consist of health professionals or politicians.
The Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that another budget requirement did not prevent the state’s public colleges and universities from introducing mask mandates on their campus.
The Department of Education has also launched a civil rights investigation in South Carolina and four other Republican-led states with similar bans on school mask mandates because the guidelines could amount to discriminating against students with disabilities or health conditions.
Disability rights groups and parents of children with disabilities, represented by the ACLU, have made similar arguments to lift the state ban on masking obligations in federal court.
Many others – including Republican state education inspector Molly Spearman, the state health department, pediatrician organizations, House Democrats, teacher groups, an association of school board members, and a group of two Democratic and two Republican senators – have all said schools should be able to create masks demand.