Richland 2 sued SC over COVID-19 mask restrictions in schools. What now?

·3 min read

After educators and many parents pushed back against a one-year state law blocking South Carolina K-12 schools from requiring COVID-19 masks in classrooms, Richland 2 schools sued.

But that was roughly three weeks ago. What happens next?

The one-year law, termed a proviso, is attached to the state fiscal budget that went into effect July 1 and has the full force law. However, Richland 2 and an Orangeburg County Schools parent who sued the state argue the proviso is overly broad and unconstitutional.

The suit was filed directly with the S.C. Supreme Court against House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington; state Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee; and S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman.

What’s happened so far?

The S.C. Supreme Court heard arguments from attorneys on both sides of the suits on Aug. 31.

Those suing argued in order to ban mask mandates, the state legislature would have to pass a general law, not a proviso, The State reported previously. Provisos are typically meant to govern how state tax dollars are spent, not enact specific policies. What’s more, the proviso banning mask mandates prevents schools from meeting the “minimally adequate” standard set by the state constitution because banning mask mandates makes it less safe to attend classes, and therefore more difficult to learn, according to the Orangeburg parent’s attorney.

Attorneys representing the state officials argued state money is so intermingled with other district money in the district’s budget that it’s highly improbable for the district to enact a policy without it directly or indirectly involving state funds. Attorneys representing the elected officials also noted that provisos have the same legal weight as regular laws, so a proviso governing mask mandates should be constitutional.

When will the lawsuit be decided?

It’s unclear when the S.C. Supreme Court will decide whether the one-year law is constitutional.

Before Richland 2 filed its suit, the City of Columbia passed an emergency ordinance requiring all day cares, elementary and middle schools in the city limits to require masks. In early September, the S.C. Supreme Court struck down the city’s ordinance.

As of Sept. 17, the S.C. Supreme Court’s case roster does not include Richland 2’s suit.

COVID-19

A new surge of COVID-19 cases began statewide in late July, and case numbers remain high as of mid-September, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Because of the delta variant and children under 12 being ineligible for the vaccine, children have been more effected by the surge in COVID-19 cases than in previous surges, The State reported previously.

For example, Lexington 1 is only weeks into classes and has already had more cases this year than all of last year, Lexington 1 Superintendent Greg Little tweeted Friday.

Even students who don’t test positive are feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. So far this school year, more than 100,000 K-12 students — that’s one in every seven students — have missed in-person class time because of isolation or quarantine, The State reported previously.

Disarray on Richland 2 school board

Richland 2 filed the Supreme Court lawsuit following a vote at an Aug. 16 meeting.

However, weeks after the suit was filed, three school board members are saying they weren’t aware they were voting to file a lawsuit, only receive legal advice.

During the Aug. 16 meeting, the board approved 6-1 on a motion that approves “the district to engage legal counsel to provide the best option and legal strategy to address” the one-year law banning mask mandates.

While the motion did not specifically mention a lawsuit, the school board’s three officers said behind-the-scenes discussions made clear the vote would be for legal action against the mask proviso.

Since that discussion happened in “executive session,” a closed-door portion of a public meeting, it’s unclear exactly what was said.

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