Missouri attorney general seeks court order blocking school mask mandates

Eric Schmitt seeks class action status for lawsuit over Columbia Public Schools mask order

By: - August 24, 2021 1:39 pm

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaks to a gathering of Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers in April 2021 (photo courtesy of the Attorney General’s office).

Mandates that require children, staff and faculty to wear masks in school to prevent spread of COVID-19 are next on Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s list of targets for lawsuits challenging local responses to the pandemic.

On Tuesday, Schmitt filed a lawsuit against Columbia Public Schools alleging that the central Missouri school district and more than 50 others that are requiring masks inside classrooms are violating state law and could actually harm students.

“We filed this suit today because we fundamentally don’t believe in forced masking, rather that parents and families should have the power to make decisions on masks, based on science and facts,” Schmitt said in a news release. “I am committed to fighting back against this kind of government overreach. Americans are free people, not subjects.”

The case was filed in Boone County Circuit Court. No hearing was requested immediately and the judge assigned will determine whether it will move ahead as a class action suit with any decisions applicable to all districts.

Columbia Public Schools did not respond immediately to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Schmitt’s action is disappointing, said Melissa Randol, executive director of the Missouri School Boards Association.

No one likes to wear masks,” Randol said. “But what we dislike more than wearing masks is our students and teachers sick and having to go virtual.”

The attorney general’s lawsuit also earned a sharp rebuke from the White House.

“We’ve seen, including recently I think today or yesterday in Missouri, additional steps taken that in our view put more kids at risk,” Jennifer Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Tuesday afternoon during a briefing. “The president thinks that’s completely unacceptable.”

The lawsuit follows similar cases filed by Schmitt against St. Louis, St. Louis County, Jackson County and Kansas City challenging mask orders from local officials. In the only case where a hearing has been held, Circuit Judge Ellen Ribaudo issued a preliminary injunction Thursday blocking enforcement of the St. Louis County order. 

Colleges and school districts around the state began implementing mask requirements as the Delta variant surge sent case numbers soaring. When schools released students in May, the daily average of new cases in the state was at its lowest point since July 2020. As of Thursday, Missouri was reporting an average of 2,470 cases per day, more than six times the lowest rate of the year.

On Aug. 13, Columbia schools announced masks would be required when classes started. School began Tuesday for most students in the district, with all students beginning coursework by Thursday.

In a letter to parents, the district stated that it made the decision after watching case numbers increase and consulting medical and health professionals.

“To keep our scholars safe and learning in person, with as little interruption as possible due to illness or quarantine because of close contact with a positive case, we will begin the school year with a requirement that all scholars and adults, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks when indoors and on buses,” the district stated in the letter.

Data from the state Department of Health and Human Services shows a significant increase in infections among very young children since the Delta variant wave began taking hold in the state.

On June 1, children under 9, a group too young to be vaccinated, were averaging 5.3 percent of daily cases. As of Monday, that share was up to 8.3 percent of daily cases. Among children 10 to 17, which includes many students currently eligible for vaccination, the share of cases has fallen slightly, from 8.6 percent to 8.5 percent.

Currently, vaccines are authorized for anyone 12 years of age and older. Children have the lowest overall vaccination rate in the state, with 28.5 percent of those 12 to 17 fully vaccinated, compared to 54.1 percent of those 18 and older.

School districts art not imposing mask rules without reason, Randol said.

“They are relying on the advice, and sometimes pleas, of the medical community,” she said. “They are not doing this in a vacuum. They are doing this based on the advice of local professionals.”

In the lawsuit, Schmitt asks the court to declare the mask mandates are “unlawful, unconstitutional, arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable,” void unless authorized by the local board of education and unlawful for schoolchildren.

The masks are unnecessary, the lawsuit states, because of the “low risk to children of death” a “low risk to children of hospitalization” and a “low risk of children spreading” COVID-19.

The lawsuit cites several studies, many conducted in 2020 before the Delta variant emerged, that children are less likely to have severe illness or spread the contagion. It also cites a German study of mask use by 25,930 schoolchildren and found that 68% complained about impairments including irritability, headaches, difficulty concentrating and reluctance to go to school. 

“Forcing schoolchildren to mask all day in school flies in the face of science, especially given children’s low risk of severe illness and death and their low risk of transmission,” Schmitt said in the release. “Additionally, forcing schoolchildren to mask all day could hinder critical development by eliminating facial cues and expressions.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both recommend students wear masks in class.

Schmitt, a Republican from St. Louis County, is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Roy Blunt.

The issue of masks has become a cornerstone of Schmitt’s Senate campaign, with his lawsuits against local governments garnering the attention of national conservative media as the GOP primary field continues to grow.

This story has been updated since it was first published.

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.