© 2024 South Carolina Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Families of Kids with Disabilities Anxiously Wait for Courts to Decide School Mask Mandates

Tania Ottaviano
Porter Boever's family says the 4-year-old's autism puts him at a greater risk for COVID-19. They've filed a federal lawsuit alleging South Carolina's budget proviso banning mask mandates in schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Porter Boevers of Charleston slips behind the curtain of his makeshift playroom just off the dining room into a land of dinosaurs. The 4-year-old points out every plastic and plush prehistoric reptile by its precise name, pronouncing each with a burst of excitement.

Dinosaurs are all he wants to talk about.

Porter has autism, a developmental disability that can cause repetitive behaviors, as well as problems with speech and social skills. Typically, he attends classes for kids with special needs. But this year, Porter started school in a regular classroom. It’s a huge milestone his mother Samantha had hoped to celebrate.

“The only thing I felt was fear because I knew he wasn’t going to be safe that day,” says Samantha.

The Risk

She’s worried about the new Delta variant of COVID-19 now surging especially among children. South Carolina schools are no longer allowed to require masks. A new state budget proviso specifically prohibits mask mandates by threatening state funding. Such mandates were enforced last year.

Samantha says her son’s disability leaves him especially vulnerable. While the bubbly blonde boy can tell you all about dinosaurs, he has difficulty communicating when he is sick.

“My child is one of those that if he gets this, his pediatrician has said we would pray and hope he would get the sniffles and a cough and cold,” says Samantha. “But if he ended up in the hospital, you need to be prepared.”

Samantha feels she is unfairly being forced to choose between Porter’s health and his education. So, she’s joined the American Civil Liberties Union and eight other families in filing a federal lawsuit arguing the ban essentially excludes students with disabilities from public schools in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Department of Education has also opened a civil rights investigation.

The Lawsuit

But Governor Henry McMaster insists parents, not schools, should decide if kids wear masks. He denies allegations the budget proviso violates federal law.

“I think it’s totally inaccurate,” says Governor McMaster.

“We received a letter from the Secretary of Education about that and what we are doing here is perfectly legal in my opinion.”

The Director of Legal Advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina Allen Chaney disagrees.

“I think the legal claim is really quite straight forward,” says Chaney.

“It’s unfortunate the issue of masking during a global pandemic is such a politicized one.”

The ACLU has filed a preliminary injunction to try to stop the ban from being enforced while the case is decided.

“Our hope is that the courts move quickly on this. There are profound consequences to delay here.”

The Wait

Samantha thinks of those consequences every day. South Carolina has been ranked as having one of the highest COVID-19 rates in the nation.

She sends Porter and his 6-year-old sister Maggie off to school wearing masks knowing not all parents do the same. She pleads with those who don’t believe face masks protect children to have empathy.

“Think, am I going to choose to ignore this mom who is afraid for her child’s life just so I can feel like I’m able to do what I want to do?”

Samantha says all she can do now is wait, for courts to decide if schools can enforce mask mandates.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.