Missouri judge rejects AG Eric Schmitt’s effort to block school mask mandates statewide

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A Boone County judge on Tuesday left school mask mandates in Columbia and across Missouri in place, dealing Attorney General Eric Schmitt a setback in his quest to overturn locally-imposed mask rules in school districts and the state’s larger municipalities.

After a three-hour hearing, J. Hasbrouck Jacobs, presiding judge of the 13th Judicial Circuit, denied Schmitt’s request to expand the action to sue every school district in the state that has a mask requirement. Columbia Public Schools argued that including multiple districts as defendants would require Jacobs to broadly rule on COVID-19 mitigation measures put in place under separate local circumstances.

“The mask requirements that different districts put into place are all individualized to that district,” said Grant Wiens, a private attorney representing the district.

Schmitt, a Republican who is running for U.S. Senate, sued Columbia schools in August, calling its mask directive “arbitrary and capricious.” It was an extraordinary challenge to what medical experts broadly agree is one of the few effective ways of reducing viral transmission in schools as they prioritize in-person classes and try to protect against the COVID-19 delta variant that has swept the state.

Tuesday’s decision means the Attorney General’s office will have to sue each school district separately to block enforcement of mask mandates. It was not immediately clear if Schmitt’s office would do so, but it already has separately sued local governments such as Kansas City over indoor mask mandates.

Jacobs, however, denied the Columbia district’s request to toss the case altogether. State solicitor general D. John Sauer said immediately after the hearing that his office would next seek a court order to block the Columbia schools’ mask requirements.

The rule to wear masks in class and indoors applies to the district’s roughly 19,000 students and 3,000 staff members.

Most districts in the immediate Kansas City region are mandating masks for everyone this fall. On the outskirts of the metro, such as in Cass County, some smaller districts have kept them optional.

The arguments Tuesday took place in a Boone County courtroom where masks are required by Jacobs’ own judicial order.

Masking in schools is favored by health experts because many school children are under the age of 12 and not yet eligible for vaccination. The Columbia district’s attorneys argued the school mask requirements are part of a plan to keep students in school rather than disrupt their education with quarantines.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have both urged universal masking for schoolchildren this fall. In addition to preventing infection of students and teachers, health officials have recommended masking in schools in hopes of preventing community transmission of the virus.

While children are hospitalized with Covid at a lower rate than adults, the Delta variant that spread this summer has caused an increase in pediatric hospitalizations. Children also make up a higher share of new Covid cases than previously. As of last week, 26% of new cases nationwide were children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, compared to less than 3% at the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020.

But Schmitt has called the mask rules a threat to liberty and harmful to children. His legal filings have relied largely on a October 2020 survey of thousands of German parents, who reported observations about their children to a website. The parents said masks cause students to suffer headaches, impaired learning and other negative effects.

An abstract of the survey results, published in English, cautions that a bias “with respect to the preferential documentation of particularly severely affected children or persons who are fundamentally critical of protective measures cannot be ruled out.”

On Tuesday, Sauer argued the Columbia schools mask mandate violates a new state law passed this year that places restrictions on local governments’ public health orders. The law requires local governing bodies, such as city and county councils, to vote to approve new public health restrictions such as business closures or mask mandates every 30 days.

The Attorney General’s office said Columbia’s school board did not follow the 30-day requirement, voting to extend a COVID mitigation plan for the district on Sept. 13 a day after the state says the rules had expired.

“They may think these procedures are onerous and they may think it puts them in a tough position but this is the law of the state of Missouri,” Sauer said.

School district attorneys argued the mask rules were internal directives, not a health order for the general public. They accused Schmitt of overstepping the bounds of his authority by trying to overturn local decisions. Natalie Hoernschemeyer, an attorney for the district, said the superintendent and school board relied on guidance from local health officials as well as the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and health department.

“Columbia Public Schools consulted with the state of Missouri, the entity that is suing Columbia Public Schools, regarding implementing its mitigating measures,” she said.

The state’s new health director Donald Kauerauf has emphasized that masks are effective in reducing the spread of the virus. He told reporters earlier this month that mask rules should be left to local districts depending on “what their needs are.”

“With the increase in positivity rates among adolescents, it only makes sense to wear masks,” Kauerauf said. “I would recommend to anyone to wear a mask.”

The Star’s Jonathan Shorman contributed reporting.