It may not feel like the American system of federalism is a good thing as the school year approaches and districts begin defying state laws banning mask and vaccine mandates but take comfort: the messiness proves the system is working.
School districts in states like Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Texas are challenging state laws restricting mandates, which could lead to court challenges and heated discussion over what the federal government is allowed to do in the name of public health. That discussion and any associated legal challenges will likely lead to a more-informed citizenry, arguably preferable to one blindly obeying mandates that seem to change by the week for a nation trying to decide which direction to go post-pandemic.
In Arizona, for example, 13 school districts have chosen to require masks after Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed a law restricting them set to take effect September 29.
The possibility of a court challenge is not deterring some state leaders, nor is the push-back at the federal level. Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis (R) has threatened to withhold funding from school districts who impose mask requirements, drawing the ire of the Biden administration who has officially offered cash to districts that defy the Governor’s ban on masks.
South Carolina’s Attorney General Alan Wilson, whose state tied a mandate ban to funding via a budget provision, told Town Hall that masking students in his state is an individual choice and that, “the president does not get a say in this matter.”
“Masks can and should be considered if that is a decision an individual makes,” Wilson said. “The General Assembly appropriates funds to schools. School districts and schools cannot accept an appropriation and then not abide by the conditions attached to those appropriations.”
Wilson has recently sent letters to the University of South Carolina (USC) and the capital city of Columbia’s mayor and city council reaffirming a one-year provision attached to the state’s budget that prohibits educational institutions in the state from using appropriated funds to mandate masks or vaccines. Wilson warned that the mandates could lead to a loss of funding or appropriate legal action.USC ultimately walked back their mandate.
“We have never and will never go looking for a fight with these schools,” Wilson said. “It is important however that schools understand new laws enacted by our General Assembly. They have made these issues clear, mandates…[are] out of bounds in South Carolina. Failure to follow, could result in institutions losing their funding.”
The defiance over mandates appears to have broken down along party lines, with the 12 states imposing mask mandates (along with the District of Columbia) all being run by Democrats.
But the backlash works in both directions.
In some cases, districts are going the other way, defying a Democratic governor’s order to require masks. School districts in Floyd, N.M., and Biggsville, Ill., have voted in recent days against issuing mask mandates ordered by Govs. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) and J.B. Pritzker (D), respectively.
The decisions by state and local leaders about how best to approach mandates is exactly how federalism was designed to work; and, as Wilson points out, gives American citizens the ability to make choices about which policies align with how they want to live.
“People can always vote with their feet,” he said. “South Carolina is a wonderful place to live, work and raise a family. South Carolina has and remains open for business. I would encourage anyone wishing to escape the authoritarianism associated with vaccine mandates to look at South Carolina. Our door is wide open.”