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Missouri AG Schmitt files anti-mask lawsuits against 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 lawsuits on Friday against multiple school districts he said were illegally instating health policies.

Schmitt tweeted links to court filings in the suits against the St. Louis Public Schools, Francis Howell, Park Hill, Columbia Public, Fort Zumwalt and Lee's Summit school districts. His office said it plans to file suit against 35 school districts throughout the day.

The lawsuits are part of an ongoing effort by Schmitt, who is running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, to force Missouri schools to drop mask mandates and other COVID-19 mitigation policies.

“Public health authorities and school districts have gone unchecked, issuing illegal and unconstitutional orders in their quest to aggregate, maintain and exert their newfound power,” Schmitt said in December.

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 approved 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 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 from “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 say 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.

“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.

The Cole County case was about the Department of Health and Senior Services delegating authority to local public health officials but did not involve schools, said Rob Gatter, a professor of law at St. Louis University School of Law at the Center for Health Law Studies.

“The attorney general is way out of step with any precise ruling in that court opinion or really any way to extrapolate from the underlying principles that the state court judge was applying,” Gatter said. “It just has no application. And that is where that trial court opinion ends. It has no application beyond that.”

The lawsuits are being filed during a wave of COVID-19 infections that was three times higher than previous waves at its peak and has filled local hospitals. School districts are struggling to staff classrooms during a big increase in educators who are out sick.

Gatter 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,” he 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.”

The lawsuits were filed in the counties where the school districts are located.

This is a developing story.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

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Kate Grumke