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Columbia schools ask SC Supreme Court to pause enforcement of ban on COVID mask mandates

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Spring Valley High School is one of five high schools in the Richland Two district. The school district is asking the S.C. Supreme Court to pause enforcement of a state ban on COVID-19 mask mandates in its schools while it waits for the court to rule on their legality. File

COLUMBIA — A Columbia area school district is asking a state ban on school mask mandates not be enforced until the state Supreme Court rules on their legality.

Richland School District Two, in suburban Columbia, is asking the state's highest court to at least temporarily block enforcement of a state law that bans mask mandates in K-12 public schools, ensuring districts don't lose state funding for requiring masks as the number of COVID-19 cases soar statewide.

The one-year ban legislators inserted into the state budget took effect July 1. It bars school districts from using state and federal funds authorized by the Legislature to impose or enforce masks. Districts have been warned that defying the law puts their funds at risk.

Richland Two and its leaders "remain steadfast in our commitment to doing all we can to keep our students and employees safe and our schools open so that our students can receive the highest quality education from face-to-face instruction," district Superintendent Baron Davis said in a statement. "We believe masks keep our students and employees safe by reducing the spread of COVID-19.”

The district's Aug. 20 petition comes a day after S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson sued the city of Columbia, asking the high court to declare the capital city's mask mandate for schools — as well as any other K-12 mask mandate imposed by a city, county or school board — in violation of the law.  

The state's top attorney filed the suit Aug. 19 in response to a city ordinance, passed earlier in the month, requiring masks in elementary and middle schools and day cares within the city's borders, to be enforced by money collected through local property taxes. Richland County passed a similar measure during an emergency meeting Aug. 16.

The Charleston County School District on Aug. 16 — two days before the start of the school year — voted to direct district staff to require masks for students, employees and visitors while they are inside schools until Oct. 15. 

Charleston City Council considered a mask mandate late on Aug. 17 for all adults and children over 2 years old “in all public facilities, including public schools, private schools and daycares.” But after several attempts to carve out additional exceptions for Berkeley County schools and private schools, the measure failed to get the needed two-thirds vote.

A number of private schools in the Charleston area announced mask rules well ahead of the start of the school year.

GOP legislative leaders sent Wilson a letter Aug. 6 encouraging him to sue Columbia over the mandate. 

"The lawsuit does not question whether masks are effective or a good idea but is based on the importance of following state law," Wilson's office said in a statement. "Attorney General Wilson encourages everyone to wear masks when appropriate and encourages anyone who can to get the COVID vaccination. However, the General Assembly passed a budget proviso that prohibits schools or school districts from requiring masks."

Wilson contends the city doesn't have the authority to impose mask requirements on schools, as public education is the purview of state lawmakers and school boards.

Attorneys Carl Solomon and Skyler Hutto filed the injunction against House Speaker Jay Lucas, Senate President Harvey Peeler, state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman and state Treasurer Curtis Loftis on behalf of Richland Two, which has 28,500 students and 3,700 employees in 40 schools across the district.

Also on Aug. 20, the leadership of the state's public health agency joined calls for Lucas and Peeler to bring their colleagues back for a special session to overturn the ban. 

Reach Jessica Holdman at jholdman@postandcourier.com. Follow her @jmholdman on Twitter.

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