Kansas City reinstates mask mandate for K-12 schools amid COVID surge

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office pledged to amend an existing lawsuit to halt Kansas City’s ordinance.

By: - January 6, 2022 4:28 pm

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas meets with Missouri Gov. Mike Parson in October 2019. Lucas and the City Council voted to reinstate a face mask mandate for K-12 schools in Kansas City (photo courtesy of Missouri Governor’s Office).

Kansas City will reinstate a mask mandate for K-12 schools as COVID-19 cases reach record figures driven by the omicron variant.

Council members voted 10-2 on Thursday to require that students and staff in school buildings wear masks starting next week and running until Feb. 3. Its previous mask mandate expired late last year. 

Mayor Quinton Lucas sponsored the legislation. He cited the surge in COVID infections in an email to the City Council ahead of its meeting.

“When the school mask rule expired over one month ago, we found ourselves in a different trajectory as it relates to case numbers,” Lucas said in the email. “At our schools now, teachers, staff, bus drivers and students are being deeply impacted by COVID, leading to concern that schools may need to move back to virtual learning if mitigation strategies are not pursued—something none of us wish to see.”

During the first week of January, Kansas City recorded nearly 5,000 new COVID cases, near 1% of the citywide population, far surpassing any other week since the pandemic began. Statewide, Missouri reported a record 12,264 cases on Wednesday. 

Lucas said in a press conference ahead of the council meeting that passing the ordinance would be a responsible step to keep children safe while allowing them to attend school in-person.

The ordinance places Kansas City in the crosshairs of Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who on Wednesday announced he would sue St. Louis County for resuming its countywide mask mandate. St. Louis County’s order went further than Kansas City’s, requiring masks at all indoor facilities for individuals older than five. 

“Citizens of St. Louis County should have the freedom to choose what is best for them and their families — the government has no authority force them to wear a mask or get vaccinated,” Schmitt said in a press release.

Schmitt, who is running in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate, began sending cease and desist letters late last year to school districts and local health departments that were enforcing mask mandates, arguing the rules had been struck down through a court order issued by Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green.

At the time, Kansas City still had a mask mandate for schools in its boundaries, which had been passed by the City Council. Lucas said Green’s order did not apply. 

Lucas said Thursday’s ordinance was tailored to comply with Missouri law. 

It has an exemption for religious institutions. It was passed by the council rather than enacted under the mayor’s executive authority as with earlier mask mandates. And it runs only one month. 

“He’ll sue anyway, so it’s not actually to avoid a lawsuit,” Lucas said of Schmitt. “It’s to make sure we will win such (a) lawsuit, which I think that if you look at this order, the way it’s drafted, we will.”

Lucas called Schmitt’s lawsuits “counterproductive” and “anti-public health.” He said they “fundamentally undermine everyone who is working hard to keep young people, old people, everyone in Missouri safe.”

Schmitt’s spokesperson, Chris Nuelle, called the mask mandate “illegal” and said the office would amend its existing lawsuit “to halt their latest attempt at imposing a mask mandate.” 

“Further, masks do little to control the spread of COVID-19 and can harm critical development in children who are forced to wear them all day in school, despite the exceedingly low risk that children can become seriously ill from COVID-19,” Nuelle said.

Studies have supported the efficacy of masks, but in his lawsuit, Schmitt cited some individual health professionals who have said that cloth masks appear to be less effective in controlling the spread of the omicron variant. He also cited a study referenced in the St. Louis County mandate that found stronger evidence that surgical masks work than cloth masks.

Indeed, the lead author of a study that Schmitt claims suggests “that cloth masks do not prevent COVID-19 infection” told the Washington Post the research did not conclude that cloth masks are ineffective.

The research findings “don’t necessarily show that surgical masks are much, much better than cloth masks, but we find much clearer evidence of the effectiveness in surgical masks,” Jason Abaluck, an economist at Yale and one of the authors of the paper, told The Post in an interview last summer.

“I think this should basically end any scientific debate about whether masks can be effective in combating covid at the population level,” Abaluck said, calling it “a nail in the coffin” of the arguments against masks.

Council members Heather Hall and Brandon Ellington voted against the ordinance. Hall noted the 5,000 cases reported during the first week of January, the largest number reported in a single week in the nearly two-year-old pandemic, and said — incorrectly — that it represented 0.1% of the city’s population.

It represents 1%.

“If I can do my math right, that doesn’t seem like we’re in this, ‘Oh my gosh,’ pandemic problem,” Hall said. “My big problem is that we cannot, as a city, just keep mandating that people do this or do that.”

Hall noted her family got the flu shot and one of her children still got the flu, but acknowledged the symptoms were less severe than they would have been otherwise.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that people won’t die from COVID-19,” Lucas said.

Lucas, who tested positive for COVID-19 in late December, noted his case was less severe because he was fully vaccinated and had received a booster shot.

“It actually sucked the most for my baby who is not, who is dealing with all types of issues,” Lucas said. “So to me, this is about us actually looking out for lots of people, which city governments do every day.”

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on energy, the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she previously covered City Hall for The Kansas City Star, as well as state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City.