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AG files mask lawsuit against Columbia Public Schools, districts statewide

Columbia Public Schools is again the target of a lawsuit filed by state Attorney General Eric Schmitt over the district’s temporary mask mandate.

Schmitt is joined by three district parents in the suit filed Friday — Amanda “Mandi” Hamlin, Tara Arnett and Marisa Hagler — as plaintiffs. All three have spoken at Columbia School Board meetings about their opposition to masks.

The Columbia district is one of 36 across Missouri being sued over requiring masks, Schmitt spokesperson Chris Nuelle said. The lawsuits were being filed on a rolling basis Friday.

Last week, Columbia Superintendent Brian Yearwood announced masks would be required in school buildings for students and employees from Jan. 18 to Feb. 4. The decision followed surges in COVID-19 cases locally, record substitute teacher shortages, student walkouts over health concerns and teacher reports of myriad virus-related problems in schools.

On Thursday, the Columbia School Board approved an amendment that allows Yearwood to extend the mandate through Feb. 18 if needed. The thinking behind the possible extension was that it would allow for the gradual decline of COVID-19 cases anticipated after the omicron variant peaks.

Late Friday afternoon, Columbia Public Schools issued a statement about the new lawsuit.

“Providing a safe learning environment for all our scholars and staff and keeping our schools safely open are our top priorities. Public school districts have the inherent ability under Missouri state law to implement mitigation strategies to keep schools safe and open during a global pandemic. Columbia Public Schools is also listening to the state of Missouri and the guidance provided by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services in combination with other local, state and federal health and medical experts.”

The suit against the Columbia district was not the only one to include private citizens as plaintiffs. In December, the Attorney General’s Office set up an email account to turn in school districts that were not complying with Schmitt’s Dec. 7 order to end mask mandates and other COVID-19 mitigation strategies. The office responded to the messages, asking parents whether they wanted to join the suit.

The Columbia parents got involved to “protect their children against the District’s unlawful mask mandate and to vindicate their rights as taxpayers,” according to the suit.

Of the 36 lawsuits filed against districts Friday, 26 had parents named as plaintiffs. Rockwood School District’s lawsuit had 20 parents.

Schmitt is suing the district on four counts: that the mandate is void; that it’s unlawful; that it’s unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious; and that it’s a violation of the Missouri Constitution. “School districts do not have the authority to impose, at their whim, public health orders for their schoolchildren,” the suit states.

This is the second time this school year that Schmitt has sued the district over its mask mandate. A suit filed in August was dropped last month after the Columbia School Board voted Dec. 13 to end it following winter break Jan. 4.

Schmitt based his order to end mask mandates on an earlier Cole County Circuit Court ruling that COVID-19 regulations under the Department of Health and Senior Services violated the state Constitution. The day after the order was issued, the Columbia district received a cease-and-desist letter that threatened litigation if it did not comply.

The Columbia district’s statement said the lawsuits waste time and resources.

“Filing suits against numerous public school districts for making decisions in the interest of safety and keeping scholars in school continues to waste taxpayer dollars and resources, which are better spent investing in our scholars. Columbia Public Schools intends to aggressively defend its decision to do everything possible to keep its scholars and staff safe and its schools open.”

The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.