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AG sues Columbia over city’s mask mandate for students

August 19, 2021 GMT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s top prosecutor on Thursday sued the state’s capital city over a school mask mandate that officials allege violates state law.

Columbia’s school mask order conflicts with a state budget requirement that went into effect July 1 and bans school districts from using appropriated funds to require face coverings, State Attorney General Alan Wilson said in a complaint filed with the South Carolina Supreme Court.

The lawsuit comes as average daily cases of COVID-19 in South Carolina have risen by more than 60% over the past two weeks, with hundreds of students across the state already required to quarantine for exposure to the virus as districts begin their fall semesters this month.

Earlier this month, Columbia’s City Council ratified an ordinance mandating the use of masks in the city’s elementary and middle schools for at least the beginning of the school year. Mayor Steve Benjamin, the Democrat who spearheaded the move, has said it will help protect children who are too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

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The Republican attorney general said days later that the emergency ordinance should be “ rescinded or amended, ” but city leaders have maintained that the mandate doesn’t violate state law because city, not state, funds are being used provide masks to the city’s schools.

The lawsuit cites a letter from Senate President Harvey Peeler and House Speaker Jay Lucas that outlines lawmakers’ intent and insists the Columbia ordinance is “in clear and deliberate violation of the plain meaning of the proviso.”

Wilson still encourages the public to wear masks and get vaccinated, according to a statement from his office: “The lawsuit does not question whether masks are effective or a good idea but is based on the importance of following state law.”

Benjamin, the Columbia mayor, said Thursday that the city has an obligation to protect the health, safety and well-being of its citizens under the state constitution.

“Parents and teachers across our City, across Richland County, in fact across the state, have been vocal in asking us to make sure that children are safe in schools,” Benjamin said in a statement. “We think it is counter to the best interests of community health to have any discussion other than what proven measures we can use to protect our children.”

The legal battle over masks in schools will have ramifications for not only Columbia, but also districts across South Carolina.

Two of the state’s largest school districts have already decided to require masks in buildings. School boards for Charleston County and Richland One voted Monday in open defiance of the proviso, citing the highly contagious delta variant’s effect on children during the current coronavirus surge.

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A similar mask rule was voted down by the city of Charleston this week. Lexington Richland School District 5, which has schools in two counties, has also opted to abide by the state budget requirement instead of a mask mandate instituted by Richland County Council.

Outbreaks are already taking place as most of South Carolina’s 760,000 public school students return to classrooms this month. Some districts have already quarantined hundreds of students and dozens of staff.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control had tracked 226 student cases and 61 employee cases statewide for the school year as of last week.

A growing chorus has called on the General Assembly to repeal the proviso, though Republican leaders have resisted those demands.

Among the measure’s detractors are school boards, Democratic lawmakers, at least two Republican state senators and South Carolina Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, who has said the wording of the budget requirement doesn’t indicate what penalties districts in violation face.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.

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Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.