The South Carolina Supreme Court will take up two cases Tuesday involving mask requirements that will hopefully bring clarity to the state budget proviso passed by the General Assembly in June banning local mask mandates.
Both Sumter-area state senators and a spokesman for the state Department of Education spoke Wednesday and said the high court seems willing to provide its interpretation on the widely considered unclearly written proviso because it has expedited the cases.
One senator added it was not the state Legislature's intent this spring to tell school districts or local municipalities that they could not pass mask mandates.
On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court will hear proviso-related cases involving a City of Columbia mask ordinance and a Richland County School District 2 request that the high court issue a temporary injunction regarding the constitutionality of the ban on school mask mandates.
According to Ryan Brown, chief communications officer for the state Department of Education, after the Richland School District 2 lawsuit was filed late last week, the high court gave a one business-day turnaround for all parties to file briefs.
That deadline was Monday and all briefs were filed, Brown said.
"That's kind of record time, if you will," he said. "Usually, the court gives 10 days or maybe even longer to file those briefs. But, they have asked for it, and it's been given to them much quicker than it traditionally is in a normal case."
UNDERSTANDING LEGISLATIVE INTENT THIS YEAR
State Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, said, in his opinion, it was never the state Legislature's intent this year to stop school boards or municipalities from requiring masks.
In fact, those entities had mask mandates in 2020 with the initial spread of the coronavirus, he said.
However, in what most construe to be an unclearly written COVID-19-related amendment to the state budget in June, the state House of Representatives passed a proviso that has been interpreted to mean school districts are prohibited from requiring face masks in schools.
With the beginning of the school year and the surge in COVID-19, about six districts in the state have moved away from the proviso and implemented mask mandates, but many other districts - including Sumter School District - seem hesitant because of a risk of losing funding, McElveen said. On Monday, the local district's Board of Trustees voted down a mask requirement in schools 5-4.
Brown, with the state Department of Education, said his agency is ultimately seeking clarity and some finality with the Supreme Court taking up the case next week.
"Ultimately, what we are looking for is the court to tell us what is lawful and what is unlawful because there is a lot of confusion and a lot of questions as to the legality of various aspects related to that proviso," Brown said.
He added there are currently two federal lawsuits on the proviso and masks as well, and there will be some ruling on the interpretation of the proviso soon.
In a similar case last week with another unclear proviso, the high court said the University of South Carolina could impose a mask requirement on campus after reviewing legislative intent.
McElveen and fellow state Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Manning, said they are hoping for a similar ruling because the cases are similar.
Brown added from the state department's perspective something more must be done in schools to combat the surge associated with the delta variant.
"We've got to do more than we are doing now, that's for sure," he said. "If it's not masks, people will need to get vaccinated and take the virus more seriously because right now with schools being full, this variant is spreading very quickly."
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