By MICHELLE LIU
The Associated Press / Report for America
COLUMBIA, SC (AP) – The South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in two challenges to a state rule limiting the ability of school districts to require masks for students and educators.
South Carolina lawmakers have placed a requirement on the state budget that threatens school districts with withholding state money if they need masks. This provision came into effect on July 1, when the state averaged less than 150 cases of COVID-19 per day.
Today, the state records about 4,500 new cases a day and deaths are increasing as hospitals become overcrowded as children return to school and vaccinations fall behind schedule.
In one case, state attorney general Alan Wilson sued the city of Columbia over the city council’s decision to enact a state of emergency in the face of the increase in cases and then to require masks for workers and anyone under 12 in schools. City officials said the mask requirement, which carries a $ 100 fine for violation, is intended to protect children too young to be approved for the coronavirus vaccine.
In the second challenge, the Richland School District 2 is suing the state, asking Supreme Court justices to suspend the mask ban until it can rule on the previous case.
Lawyers supporting mask warrants on Tuesday said lawmakers overstepped constitutional limits by inserting the mask rule – a policy unrelated to state finances – into the budget, which aims to raise and spend money. money. State law requires that legislation have only one subject.
City and school officials can also tap into separate pots of money, such as local funds, to enforce masks, said Chris Kenney, an attorney representing the city of Columbia.
“All they said was don’t spend our money on a mask warrant,” Kenney said. “The city decree fully complies with it.”
State lawyers disagreed, pointing out that state funds help pay the salaries of teachers and administrators who should enforce a mask mandate.
Several judges questioned whether it was possible to separate the use of state money from other funds during the execution of the warrant.
Deputy Solicitor General Emory Smith said school districts cannot make such distinctions in their accounting given how close teachers are to students and how much time they spend in class. “Everything is linked,” he said.
Some school districts have already implemented mask warrants despite the budget requirement, although most are still waiting to see what the court decides. With most districts 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 have been quarantined.
Chief Justice Don Beatty said the court’s decision would be based solely on the law, noting that the court was not made up of medical professionals or politicians.
The High Court ruled earlier this month that a different budget requirement does not prevent the state’s public colleges and universities from instituting mask mandates on their campuses.
The federal Department of Education has also opened a civil rights investigation in South Carolina and four other Republican-led states with similar bans on school mask mandates, saying the policies could amount to discrimination against against students with disabilities or with health problems.
Disability rights groups and parents of disabled children represented by the ACLU have made similar arguments in an attempt to overturn the state’s ban on mask warrants in federal court.
Many others – including Republican State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, the state health agency, pediatric organizations, House Democrats, teachers’ groups, an association of school board members and a group of two Democratic senators and two state Republicans – all said schools should be able to require masks.