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Missouri Attorney General files anti-mask lawsuits against dozens of school districts

Eric Schmitt, Missouri Attorney General, speaks to the media on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in St. Louis. Schmitt sent a letter to public school districts requiring them to stop enforcing mask mandates and other public health guidelines that were voided by the judgment.
Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio
Eric Schmitt, Missouri Attorney General, speaks to the media on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in St. Louis. Schmitt sent a letter to public school districts requiring them to stop enforcing mask mandates and other public health guidelines that were voided by the judgment.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed dozens of lawsuits on Friday against Kansas City, St. Louis, Park Hill, Lee's Summit and other school districts in an ongoing effort to force schools to abandon COVID-19 mitigation policies.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed lawsuits on Friday against more than 30 school districts he said were illegally instating health policies.

Schmitt tweeted linksto suits filed against the school districts, including Kansas City, Francis Howell, St. Louis Public Schools, Columbia Public, Lee's Summit and Park Hill. His office said it would file suit against 35 districts throughout the day.

The suits allege that school districts do not have the authority to impose public health orders for children. Several parents within the districts are named as plaintiffs in the suits that were filed in the counties where the school districts are located.

The lawsuits are part of Schmitt’s ongoing effort to force Missouri schools to drop mask mandates and other COVID-19 mitigation policies. Schmitt is a Republican running for U.S. Senate.

“Parents and families, not bureaucrats, should have the power to decide what’s best for their children," Schmitt said in a press release Friday.

In a letter to school districts in December, Schmitt told the districts to cease enforcement of public health orders that he said were declared void by a recent court ruling.

In November a Cole County judge ruled that health orders passed by an “unelected official” were unconstitutional and a violation of Missouri’s separation of powers.

“Missouri statutes give elected legislative bodies, not individual health agency directors, authority to create county-wide laws related to communicable disease,” Cole County Circuit Court Judge Daniel R. Green wrote.

Schmitt’s office says it sent letters to more than 50 school districts in December, more than 20 of which are in the St. Louis area, telling them to cease and desist “illegal” mask, quarantine and other public health policies.

The majority of local school districts still have mask mandates in place and believe their policies are legal, according to statements and letters sent to parents.

The districts believe their power to enact health policies is spelled out in two Missouri statutes, said Paul Ziegler, CEO of EdPlus, a cooperative of about 60 public school and charter school systems.

Ziegler pointed to Missouri statute 167.191, which says it is unlawful for children to attend school with an infectious disease they may spread and revised statute 171.011, which gives school boards the ability to adopt rules and regulations.

“Between those two statutes, to me, it's very clear that school boards not only have the ability but have the obligation to do the things they're doing right now to try and keep kids safe,” Ziegler said.

The districts also believe their power to enact health policies is reinforced by the fact that in most cases, elected school boards voted to approve the policies. The Cole County ruling presented the argument that unelected officials have limited authority, said Duane Martin, an attorney at EdCounsel, which represents public school districts across Missouri, including Francis Howell, Holden R-III, Jefferson City, Independence and Kingsville, which were sued by the Attorney General on Friday.

“By putting it before the people who are elected by the local community to make these very decisions, I think it just bolsters their ability to make these kinds of determinations in the best interest of their kids,” Martin said.

Health implications

The lawsuits come during a wave of COVID-19 infections that was three times higherthan previous waves at its peak and has filled local hospitals.

It has put a strain on school districts that arestruggling to staffclassrooms amid a big increase in educators who are out sick.

Rob Gatter, a professor of law at St. Louis University School of Law at the Center for Health Law Studies, said the lawsuits are creating confusion and sending a dangerous message at a concerning point in the pandemic.

“[Hospitals] barely have the beds and they barely really have the nurses and the Missouri Attorney General, Eric Schmitt, is adding to the problem by creating confusion about what's legal and what's illegal,” Gatter said.

The lawsuits will take time and resources from school districts, Ziegler said.

“It's not only a distraction for school leaders to have to deal with it, to have to prepare themselves for potential litigation or deal with litigation if a suit is actually filed,” Ziegler said. “Those leaders would be much better served working with their communities to make sure they're keeping kids safe and keeping our school doors open.”

And Martin points out, “taxpayers are paying both sides of this.”

School districts the Attorney General filed suit against

  •  Francis Howell 
  •  Park Hill
  •  Columbia Public
  •  Fort Zumwalt 
  •  Lee’s Summit
  •  Holden
  •  Affton
  •  Liberty
  •  St. Charles
  •  Kansas City Missouri
  •  Dunklin R-5
  •  St. Louis Public Schools
  •  North Kansas City Public 
  •  Waynesville
  •  Brentwood
  •  Jefferson City
  •  Rockwood 
  •  Raytown
  •  Clayton
  •  Ladue
  •  Independence
  •  Mehlville
  •  Kingsville 
  •  Parkway 
  •  Valley Park
  •  Center
  •  Fox
  •  Pattonville 
  •  Warrensburg
  •  Webster Groves
  • Hickman Mills

Updated: January 21, 2022 at 4:09 PM CST
This story was updated to include additional school districts sued by the Missouri Attorney General.
I report on agriculture and rural issues for Harvest Public Media and am the Senior Environmental Reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. You can reach me at kgrumke@stlpr.org.
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