Missouri attorney general sues 36 school districts over mask mandates

"Mask mandates in schools are illegal, they simply don't work, and they contribute to alarming and negative psychological impacts," Eric Schmitt says.

Updated: January 22, 2022 - 10:45pm

Missouri Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt completed on Friday a promise made earlier this week by filing lawsuits against 36 public school districts for requiring masks.

"Mask mandates in schools are illegal, they simply don't work, and they contribute to alarming and negative psychological impacts on our children," Schmitt, a candidate for the seat of retiring Republican U.S. Senator Roy Blunt, said in a statement announcing the lawsuits. "My Office has been on the frontlines of the fight to end the forced masking of children all day in school, and today we took concrete legal action toward that end. Parents and families, not bureaucrats, should have the power to decide what's best for their children. With this litigation, we're seeking to return that power back to parents and families, where it belongs."

Earlier this week, leaders of two Missouri public school district collaboratives told The Center Square that attorneys for many school boards believe two Missouri statutes require districts to create and enforce policies to ensure the health and safety of students. Schmitt stated a November Cole County Circuit Court ruling, now being appealed by St. Louis and Jackson Counties at the Missouri Court of Appeals, prevents school districts from enforcing any public health orders. Schmitt set up an email box through his office in December and received 11,000 messages and photographs from people witnessing mask requirements in public schools.

"As we've said all along, we have consulted with our legal counsel and are confident that our Board of Education has the authority to establish mask requirements and other mitigation issues," read a statement from the Francis Howell School District. "The Attorney General is not elected to make decisions for Francis Howell students and staff. ... Our community and especially our elected officials should be celebrating and supporting schools during this challenging time, not suing them. The lawsuit filed by Schmitt is a waste of taxpayer money — on both sides."

The lawsuits come as dozens of public school districts across Missouri couldn't hold classes this week due to the high number of students, teachers and staff with COVID-19, those taking care of someone that's ill or remaining isolated after exposure to the virus. Earlier today, Republican Gov. Mike Parson announced a 40-member U.S. Navy medical team would be deployed to assist with COVID-19 health care at a hospital in St. Louis County.

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade (D-Springfield) criticized lawsuits filed by Schmitt.

"Today, Eric Schmitt sued dozens of Missouri school districts for taking reasonable and entirely lawful steps to protect their students from a highly contagious disease, steps that became necessary in part because Schmitt bullied them in dropping their mask mandates," Quade said in a statement. "Quite predictably, coronavirus infections quickly spread like wildfire among teachers and students, prompting school districts to reinstate masks and forcing many schools to close. These lawsuits are beyond frivolous and read more like campaign literature while citing scant legal authority for his position, which is not surprising since there isn’t any."

Two notable school districts with mask mandates weren't sued. Kirkwood School District, serving the Glendale area where Schmitt resides, and the Special School District of St. Louis County, which provides services for children with special needs, both have mandates but weren't on the attorney general's list. Schmitt’s son, Stephen, is on the autism spectrum and is non-verbal, according to Schmitt's campaign website, and attended Kirkwood schools.

"There's a chance that there could be more lawsuits, but I wouldn't want to speculate too much about future plans at this point," said Chris Nuelle, press secretary for the attorney general, in an email to The Center Square. "We sued school districts across the state that we identified as having mask mandates, despite the legislature never granting them the authority to enact mask mandates."

Columbia Public Schools, whose lawsuit was dismissed by Schmitt on Dec. 30, 2021, after the school board ended the mask requirement, reappeared on the list.

"Eric Schmitt's stunning abuse of power is making countless Missouri kids sick and preventing schools from keeping their doors open," Quade said. "He is corrupting his high office for political gain and is unworthy of the authority Missourians have entrusted him."

Schmitt's release said several private attorneys are offering free legal services to the 76 parents joining the attorney general as plaintiffs in lawsuits.