Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday against school districts imposing mask mandates on children and teachers. Springfield Public Schools has begun the 2021-22 school year with a mask mandate in place.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the Columbia Public Schools, its board of education and superintendent, according to a news release from the Attorney General’s office.
Columbia Public Schools, like SPS, requires students and workers to wear masks indoors and on buses.
Schmitt cited what he called a low risk of severe illness and death for children, as well as their low risk of transmission. He also said forcing children to mask could hinder their development by eliminating facial cues.
“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,” Schmitt said in the news release.
He added, “I am committed to fighting back against this kind of government overreach. Americans are free people, not subjects.”
Springfield Public Schools spokesperson Stephen Hall cites science, not overreach, in defending the district’s masking policy.
“The unfortunate reality is that COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Missouri, where vaccination rates remain alarmingly low, and children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine,” Hall said.
He noted that SPS policies are grounded in recommendations from local health authorities.
“In our case, SPS is working in consultation with the Springfield-Greene County Health Department to ensure our protocols align with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics,” he said. “Our decisions are supported by local data reflecting the impact of COVID-19 here in Springfield.”
When enacting the requirement Aug. 13, Columbia Public Schools spokesperson Michelle Baumstark pointed out the district’s bottom-line goal of keeping kids in-person for learning. Baumstark was interviewed on Columbia-based ABC 17 News and said, “We will evaluate again at a later date, but right now our goal, purpose, everything is to have all of our students fully in person and to keep them safe and to make that possible for us to be fully together in person for as long as we can.”
In announcing the masking policy in a letter to families, Columbia Public Schools acknowledged that not everyone would agree with their policy.
“We have listened closely and intentionally to many voices and opinions. This decision is not a forever decision, but it is a decision that is currently necessary,” the letter said.
CPS provides masks for those who need them and offers mask breaks during the day.
SPS released a statement to the district when announcing its mask mandate for the school year on July 30. In it, Superintendent Grenita Lathan cites the effectiveness of masks in limiting the spread of the virus at school and reducing the number of cases required to quarantine.
“Keeping more students in school supports their learning and social development while allowing parents to work without frequent disruptions caused when students must quarantine at home following exposure,” Lathan said. “Our goal is to remove the masking requirement, in collaboration with public health experts, as soon as local data indicates it is appropriate. In the meantime, we will continue to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on our community and encourage all those over the age of 12 to be vaccinated now.”
Schmitt’s lawsuit incorporates three counts: a declaration that the mask mandates are unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious; a declaration that the mask mandate is subject to Missouri Revised Statute 67.265, which imposes state limits on local public health orders; and a declaration that the mask mandate is unlawful to schoolchildren, according to the release.
Schmitt has filed similar suits against St. Louis County, Kansas City and Jackson County for imposing mask mandates. Last week, a St. Louis County judge issued a preliminary injunction to halt the imposition of a mask mandate there. So far, Schmitt has not filed a suit against SPS.
Schmitt’s lawsuit cites Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services data stating no children under the age of 10 have died from COVID-19 and children make up less than 1 out of every 100,000 people who are hospitalized in Missouri.
Earlier this month, Katie Towns, director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, said at a news conference from this month COVID-19 update that hospitals in the area are seeing more children hospitalized with COVID-19, and some of these are seriously ill.
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