Richland County kids barred from school for not wearing mask, parents’ lawsuit claims

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Two Richland County parents are suing the county, the Richland 1 school district, and the city of Columbia over school mask mandates.

Lizabeth Curlin and Kelli Powell, who are not related, claim their children were barred in early September from attending school in Richland 1 because they weren’t wearing masks. They haven’t been to school since.

“We believe it is our God-given right to parent and raise our children without government interference,” Curlin said in a statement. “It is our duty as Americans to stand up for our children and our constitutional rights.”

The State reached out to the city, county and school district for comment.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs say that by barring their children from entering schools without masks, Richland 1 has not provided their children with a minimally adequate education as required by South Carolina law

“We do not consent to unlawful mask mandates that our local authorities have implemented against the South Carolina Supreme Court,” Powell said in the statement.

In August, Columbia and Richland County passed ordinances that required students in elementary and middle schools to wear masks. The district also implemented a mask mandate for all students.

But in early September, the state Supreme Court said the city and county mandates violated a one-year state law that prevents school districts from using state funds to enforce a mask mandate.

Columbia and Richland County this month passed new mask mandates that acknowledge school personnel cannot enforce them. Instead, the city and county will use their own personnel to enforce the mask mandates in schools. In the county’s case, fire marshals will visit schools at times to make sure masks are being worn.

Richland 1 responded to the Supreme Court ruling by saying its mask mandate will remain in effect until the court rules on a separate lawsuit filed by the Richland 2 school district.

The Richland 1 parents’ lawsuit claims that the state Supreme Court ruling and federal case law prevents schools from interfering with a parent’s decision about whether a child should wear a mask.

“Columbia and Richland County seem to have acted to entirely disregard and ignore the South Carolina Supreme Court decision,” Josh Hooser, the lawyer representing the parents, said in the statement. “The taxpayers and parents deserve more respect from their elected leaders.”

The suit seeks to find the city, county and school district in contempt of court and to allow the children to return to school without masks.

The city and county passed the latest mask requirements after summer brought an exponential increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths. Last week, more people were hospitalized across South Carolina because of COVID than at any point since the virus hit in March 2020. Wednesday, state health officials reported 138 deaths from the virus, one of the highest numbers of deaths reported in a day.

Richland County has about 1,014 cases of COVID per 100,000 residents, according to the county, which puts it in health officials’ highest tier of infection rate. More than 200 cases per 100,000 is considered a high rate.

About 52% of Richland County’s eligible residents are fully vaccinated, the county said.

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