The S.C. Supreme Court has refused to temporarily block the ban on school mask mandates. Photo courtesy of Jack Bingham. 

Update: South Carolina school districts can continue to enforce mask requirements after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday denied state Attorney General Alan Wilson’s request to enforce a South Carolina law prohibiting school mask mandates.  

The appeals court sent the case back for consideration at the district court level. Gov. Henry McMaster has vowed to take the battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Meanwhile, the Columbia City Council voted Tuesday to extend the citywide mask ordinance for another 30 days as the town continues to work through the COVID-19 spread. The original ordinance, first approved on Sept. 8, was set to expire this week. Despite the decline in COVID-19 levels and hospitalizations, there still would need to be a considerable drop to return to the levels seen in the late spring and early summer.

Yet another court decision issued Wednesday over masks in public schools has left thousands of South Carolina parents and students confused about what districts can or cannot do regarding masking up during the pandemic. 

The S.C. Supreme Court refused to block the Legislature’s ban on requiring masks in public schools, a day after a federal court judge blocked the ban.

The state court’s decision was sparked by a proviso inserted into the state budget in June: No school district, or any of its schools, may use any funds appropriated or authorized pursuant to this act to require that its students and/or employees wear a face mask at any of its education facilities. This prohibition extends to the announcement or enforcement of any such policy.

The decision of the state Supreme Court  most notably addressed Richland School District 2’s request to temporarily block enforcement of the state ban to ensure schools do not lose state funding towards COVID-19 prevention. The justice indicated the district could use other money to mandate masks.

The contradictory findings of the courts  directly reflect much of the stormy public opinion about masks.

Camryn Usher, a first grade teacher at Rosewood Elementary, admits to the “physical discomfort” of the masks, but applauds the “mental comfort” of the mandate. 

“Kids touch everything,” said Usher. “They can’t stay away from each other with or without the masks on, so I at least have some sense of peace of mind knowing we can control the germs spread between them as best we can.”

Usher said she and her fellow faculty members are “desperate” to keep children in face-to-face learning and labeled masks as the “easiest and smartest” way to do so.

Though the court refused to block the ban on school mask mandates, it was made clear that districts can legally find a way to work around it. 

On Wednesday, the State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman granted school districts the “discretionary authority to require masks.” This means South Carolina schools are not required to enforce mandates, but it is no longer illegal to do so. 

South Carolina school districts have already navigated these “loopholes” over the past several months. 

Richland 1, a district serving around 22,000 students spread across 52 schools, has enforced a mask mandate since Aug. 16. On another path, Lexington 1, a district serving more than 27,300 students spread across 31 schools, opted not to enforce facial coverings for its students and faculty.

Officials with Richland 2, the original district to challenge the state ban and keep state funding, said they would implement a mask mandate beginning Sept. 30 after the federal judge’s ruling. 

Lexington School District 1 currently does not require their students to be masked while in school buildings. Photo by Alex Jones

Richland School District 1 has upheld a mask mandate in all school buildings since Aug. 16. Photo by Alex Jones

On Sept. 8, The city of Columbia unanimously voted to implement a 30-day mask ordinance requiring facial coverings in public places and outdoors when social distancing is not possible. Photo by Meghan Hurley