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Schmitt challenging federal Head Start coronavirus mandates

Attorney General Eric Schmitt is once again challenging a Biden administration coronavirus mandate — this time joining a multi-state lawsuit in opposition of the requirement for Head Start students to wear face coverings and for employees to be vaccinated.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services unveiled its new standards for the Head Start program at the end of November, requiring teachers and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 31 — with exemptions for religious and medical reasons — and enforcing universal masking for everyone who is at least 2 years old. 

Head Start is a federal program allowing low-income families to enroll children up to 5 years old for social, cognitive, and emotional development lessons ahead of school.  

Schmitt, who has been a vocal opponent to COVID-19 mask and vaccination requirements, warned masking requirements could hamper social development for young children while vaccination requirements could harm the early education workforce.

“Head Start programs provide much-needed resources for underserved communities, single moms, and other parents who may be struggling to provide care. Forcing children to wear masks all day is counterintuitive, as children have a very low risk of contracting, spreading, or becoming seriously ill from COVID-19,” Schmitt said. “We’ve heard from parents across the state about how these mask mandates are harming their children. The Biden administration does not have the authority to issue these onerous mask and vaccine mandates, and as we have with all of his illegal edicts, we will fight them vigorously in court.”

The lawsuit alleged the policy was beyond the federal health department’s authority and violated several laws requiring comment periods on proposed rules and congressional approval. 

Schmitt was joined by attorneys general from Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Wyoming, and West Virginia. 

The policy was implemented to mitigate rising COVID-19 case rates. Such rules are authorized in federal statute allowing the secretary of Health and Human Services to alter conditions and regulations for the program, according to a federal notice of the rule change. 

“Greater understanding about the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the increased risk to certain populations, the benefits of masking, and the safety and efficacy of vaccines demonstrates the need for widespread masking and vaccination to reduce COVID-19 and its impacts,” the notice said. “As programs prepare for fully in-person services, it is imperative that we create conditions that support the health and safety of children and reduce program closures and service interruptions. The universal masking and vaccination requirements outlined in this [interim final rule with comment] are critical to this effort.”

As the new omicron variant causes widespread concern, President Joe Biden addressed the  nation earlier Tuesday, saying vaccination was a “patriotic duty.”

“If you are not fully vaccinated, you have good reason to be concerned,” Biden said

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Schmitt has been vociferously opposed to coronavirus vaccine and mask mandates over the past year, often challenging the Biden administration’s policies requiring full vaccination for large employers, federal contractors, and health care workers. 

While courts have halted the federal government’s enforcement of vaccine mandates for the federal and health care workforce, Schmitt appealed a lower court’s decision regarding mandates for private employers to the U.S. Supreme Court last week. 

Schmitt, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate, has also gone to bat over mask mandates in Missouri schools, sending cease and desist letters to dozens of school districts this month instructing them to halt COVID-19 mandates that may have been nullified by a recent court ruling. 

More than 53 percent of Missouri’s eligible population has been fully inoculated, and 60 percent have had at least an initial dose. The state reported more than 14,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the past seven days and 30 deaths as rates have risen due to the new variant across the country.