Aiken County officials react to South Carolina overturning ban of mask mandates in schools

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Sep. 29—The Aiken County Board of Education will have to discuss next steps after a South Carolina federal judge overturned a ban on school mask mandates.

U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis on Tuesday suspended South Carolina from enforcing a rule that banned school districts from requiring masks for students, according to The Associated Press.

Parents of disabled children, helped by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the state saying the ban discriminated against medically vulnerable students by keeping them out of public schools as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, according to The Associated Press.

"The dynamic conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding recommendations and requirements have created a challenging environment for our schools and communities," S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said in a statement.

To ensure that school districts follow the law, Spearman on Wednesday released guidance based on the court's ruling of Proviso 1.108 that limited individual school district's decision-making authority over mask use.

The immediate effect of the court's order is that both the state and local school districts are prohibited from enforcing Proviso 1.108, and school districts now have the discretionary authority to require masks, according to Spearman's guidance.

The mask ban has been forcefully backed by Republican S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and GOP lawmakers who said parents should decide whether students wear masks, not school officials, according to The Associated Press.

"We disagree with the judge's position, and we plan to appeal," said S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.

"The way we interpret that is, the federal judge has outlawed preventing mask mandates, which in other words she's overwritten what the state legislature did, so theoretically we could do a mask mandate if we chose to, but we haven't discussed it," Aiken County Board of Education Chairman Dr. John Bradley said Tuesday night.

Bradley said he would personally be in favor of a mask mandate, but noted that he was only speaking for himself and not the board..

Last week, all the members of the Aiken County school board signed a resolution asking the state legislature for local control over mask rules and for the legislature to revisit Proviso 1.108.

The board had not received a response to the letter sent to the state Legislature, Aiken County Superintendent King Laurence said.

"I have noticed that at least a dozen or more districts around the states have done similar resolutions since we did ours, so I think the legislature is hearing from us so, hopefully, that would have some impact," Laurence said.

Laurence said from his point of view, the letter was not really about mask mandates, it was about the local school board being able to make those decisions.

"I can't say that our board will do anything differently than what's in place, they might, they might not," Laurence said. "We'll look at it based on Aiken County's circumstances and make recommendations to our board if and when we have the right to do that based on state law."

The ruling wasn't even a close call, the judge wrote, stopping the state from enforcing a one-year ban placed in the budget, according to The Associated Press.

"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," Lewis wrote.

The Aiken County Board of Education's next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 12.

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