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Missouri attorney general sues schools over mask mandate

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a class action lawsuit Tuesday in an effort to prevent public schools from implementing mask mandates.

The lawsuit, filed in Boone County Circuit Court, named Columbia Public Schools (CPS), its board, and the CPS superintendent as defendants.

The challenge argued the mandate is “arbitrary and capricious,” saying the “cure should not be worse than the disease.” The 31-page lawsuit alleged masks can be “detrimental” to children learning communication skills “at a critical stage of their development.”

“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. Additionally, forcing schoolchildren to mask all day could hinder critical development by eliminating facial cues and expressions,” Schmitt said.

“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. I am committed to fighting back against this kind of government overreach. Americans are free people, not subjects,” Schmitt, who is running for U.S. Senate, continued.

The attorney general argued mask mandates were not effective and pointed to lower transmission rates among school-aged children. He said masks could hinder social development for young children, particularly with special needs.

The lawsuit asked the court to find the mask requirements are unlawful and would fall under state statute requiring such mandates expire after 30 days without an extension from the Board of Education. It also asked the court to determine the district does not have the authority to implement a mask mandate.

According to a spokesperson for the attorney general, because this is a class action suit, judgments could apply to other public school districts with mask mandates as well.

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American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said requiring children who are too young to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to wear masks in school was to ensure safety as schools reopen. 

“We just need to meet fear and polarization with facts, and we have to do it in a way that’s kind. We have to look at the data and the science,” Weingarten told The Missouri Times during an event in St. Louis last month. “The bottom line is the delta variant is very virulent and very transmissible. There are three or four ways you fight that: One is the vaccines, another is through masks with good ventilation, another is through social distancing, and another is through washing your hands. That’s what the science has told us over and over again.”

“Children under 12 don’t have access to COVID-19 vaccines yet, and it’s up to the rest of us to protect them while cases continue to spread,” the Missouri Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (MOAAP) said in a group statement. “Masks are a medically proven, key public health tool in preventing disease transmission and we strongly recommend their use in schools.“

The Biden administration quickly weighed in on the suit: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden believed the move put school children at risk.

“The president thinks that’s completely unacceptable, and he has directed his secretary of education to use all his authority to help those school districts doing the right thing to ensure every one of their students has access to a fundamental right of safe in-person learning,” Psaki told reporters Tuesday evening.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has left mask ordinances, school closures, and other mitigation strategies up to individual school boards based on community positivity rates and in consultation with local health officials. The school year began for many districts across the state this week.

Those under the age of 12 are ineligible to receive a vaccine. Only 28.5 percent of Missourians between 12-17 years old have completed vaccination.

The Jefferson City School District has a mask mandate in place when social distancing is not possible, as do several districts in St. Louis. The University of Missouri and other colleges also have their own ordinances in place.

While the General Assembly passed legislation restricting the power of local officials to enact health ordinances in times of crisis, the measure did not extend to school districts. Gov. Mike Parson addressed concerns on Sunday’s episode of “This Week in Missouri Politics,” saying “at some point, you’ve got to step in.”

Schmitt has leveled similar suits against St. Louis and Jackson counties for their mask mandates, as well as Kansas City and St. Louis. St. Louis County’s was blocked last week.

Missouri reported 11,885 new COVID-19 cases in the past seven days and 47 deaths.

Kaitlyn Schallhorn contributed to this report.

This story has been updated. It was originally published on Aug. 24.