When Jessica Piper heard about Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s demand for schools in the state to pull back from pandemic safety despite surging case numbers and hospitalizations, the mother-of-five and former high school teacher went to the place where outrage is perhaps best expressed in 2021: TikTok.
“I think my legislators shouldn’t actively be trying to kill me. But I live in Missouri,” Piper said in a Dec. 8 video to her 111,000 followers.
The video went on to critique Schmitt’s scathing letter telling all Missouri school districts and health departments to stop implementing mask orders and other COVD-19 protocols or face “enforcement action.”
But the surreal obstacle to getting through the latest school year from hell didn’t stop there. Soon after, Piper heard about Schmitt—a Republican who is now running for U.S. Senate—launching another campaign asking parents across the state to snitch on schools that still had mask mandates or other COVID-19 protocols. Then, to make matters more frustrating, Schmitt began to document the complaints on Twitter.
So Piper, a Democrat and herself a candidate for the Missouri House of Representatives, once again took to TikTok—this time to propose her own call to action.
“What if everyone sent pics of pets in masks rather than children in masks to the Missouri AG,” she wrote in a now-viral video about the campaign, before adding the email address Schmitt’s office had set up to track the complaints from “concerned parents.”
It was not immediately clear how many people responded to Piper’s ploy to flood the inbox with animal photos. But the comments suggest hundreds of people were disgusted by the attorney general’s efforts to systematically squash COVID-19 safety measures in a state facing a surge in hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients, a spike that’s virtually certain to get worse.
“I had never seen an attorney general weaponize schools like that before, and I felt like I had to do something. It’s batshit crazy to ask parents to snitch on their own schools, who are just trying to protect their children,” Piper told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “It feels like a cartoon villain situation.”
Piper’s critique mirrors those offered by a wide array of experts, teachers, parents, and union representatives canvassed by The Daily Beast who believe Schmitt’s coronavirus crackdown is just a cynical play for votes in a increasingly twisted Republican party.
In response to The Daily Beast, Schmitt’s spokesperson claimed that “school districts don’t have the statutory authority to issue public health orders,” alluding to a recent court order the AG has cited to justify gutting health powers.
The spokesperson added that “we have had a number of school districts drop their mask mandates and quarantine orders in compliance with the law, and we’re going to keep enforcing the law, that’s our job."
But Kenneth Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University, believes Schmitt’s campaign to be “a ploy to strike his base, and that his motivation to go after schools is purely a political one.”
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“I think it may backfire, though, because it is so out of the ordinary for an attorney general to be asking parents to work for him and to snitch on their own schools,” Warren told The Daily Beast.
Schmitt’s threats have already prompted at least half a dozen local health departments to say they have halted their COVID-19 response—a move that could only set Missouri up for more disaster both inside and outside classrooms. Some school districts have also already decided to drop their mask mandates and ease quarantine rules after trying to interpret the order in Schmitt’s letter.
Several other districts, including St. Louis County, have defended their right to enforce pandemic mitigation politics, insisting they are making no plans to change their protocols and filing their own motions to appeal the judge’s order Schmitt is citing as his ammunition.
One major source of confusion, Warren argued, was that the local ruling at the crux of Schmitt’s crusade—a decision by Cole County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Green—was focused on health departments, not schools.
On Nov. 22, Green concluded that the Missouri Department and Health and Senior Services, the state’s central health authority, did not have the power to “permit naked lawmaking by bureaucrats” who wanted to address the pandemic. In effect, the judge struck down several regulations that gave health departments the power to issue orders and quarantines.
But schools are a different story, experts said.
“The school district has the authority to run its school to protect children from contagious diseases,” Michael Wolff, a former Missouri Supreme Court judge and St. Louis University Law School professor, told The Daily Beast. “So you can take the public health department out of it—but the school district is still in charge of the school.”
WATCH: A Pershing (Springfield) School Administrator walks away from a parent in the middle of a conversation while kids and parents protest mandates in the background. #NoMoreMandates pic.twitter.com/AtFpkHWFBZ
— Attorney General Eric Schmitt (@AGEricSchmitt) December 10, 2021
Among those powers, at least according to Wolff, was notifying parents about students exposed to COVID-19. But Schmitt is playing hardball, and he appears to be spooking some districts into complying.
“Public health authorities and school districts have gone unchecked, issuing illegal and unconstitutional orders in their quest to aggregate, maintain, and exert their new-found power…. You should stop enforcing and publicizing any such orders immediately,” Schmitt wrote in his Dec. 7 letter.
The next day, Schmitt announced his call for “help in identifying school districts that are continuing to violate a recent Cole County Circuit Court order.” Noting that parents are “sick and tired of the stonewalling from their school districts, and so am I,” the attorney general’s office created a state-sanctioned email where people could “reach out directly… if their school district is continuing to enforce mask mandates, quarantines, and other similar COVID-19 public health orders.”
In addition to setting up the “email@example.com” to receive complaints, Schmitt asked parents on Twitter to submit photos and videos from the schools “with proper lighting + horizontal orientation.”
“If that’s not a request to use this material for an upcoming campaign commercial, I don’t know what is,” Piper quipped to The Daily Beast.
The public pressure campaign against education leaders has been meticulously documented on Schmitt’s official Twitter account. Many are written complaints detailing children supposedly being “harassed” by school officials over refusing to comply with mask mandates. But the Twitter threads also include at least one video of someone identified as a school administrator walking away from a parent repeatedly asking why he is encouraging a “mask mandate that is against the law.”
In the background, several people can be heard chanting “no more masks.” In another tweet, Schmitt posted a recording he claimed showed the “Sedalia Superintendent [admitting] the Cole County decision rendered local public-health orders unconstitutional.”
In an email to parents obtained by The Daily Beast, Sedalia Superintendent Steve Triplett said that “public schools have the authority under state law to issue mask rules.” And in a Monday letter sent to Schmitt, the school district noted that while it acknowledged the attorney general’s cease and desist letter, it “respectfully disagree[s] with the assertions made therein.”
“Superintendent Triplett was aware that he was being recorded during the conversation you mentioned, but that selection is not the entirety of the conversation,” a school spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
While several posts purport to showcase how some school districts are buckling in the face of Schmitt’s threats, the threads also capture the brewing legal battle in others.
In their own scathing letter, Lee’s Summit Schools in suburban Kansas City called out Schmitt for overstepping in his role and misinterpreting Green’s decision. St. Louis and Jackson Counties also issued their own responses to his threats, filing motions on Monday alleging Schmitt engaged in “a campaign of litigation terror against local governments and schools throughout the State.”
“Your invocation of ‘rights’ untethered to an obligation to exercise them responsibly invites lawlessness. This is especially pernicious coming from your office, because of the outsized weight some may attach to your opinions,” Joseph Hatley, an attorney representing Lee’s Summit, wrote in a Dec. 19 letter to Schmitt.
Schmitt responded with another letter to “set the record straight” with the school district about 25 minutes from Kansas City that they “are not above the law, and the district has no legal authorities to issue mask mandates or quarantine orders. Period.”
— Attorney General Eric Schmitt (@AGEricSchmitt) December 10, 2021
Other school districts told The Daily Beast that they are consulting with legal teams to determine whether the new ruling applies to them, since elected school boards approve health measures for the districts.
“While our attorneys are still looking over both the letter and the case law, their initial interpretation is that Saint Louis Public Schools (SLPS), does, in fact, have the authority to require masks and we will continue to do so because we know that every layer of prevention works in keeping our students and staff safe,” St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams said in a letter last week to parents obtained by The Daily Beast.
Byron Clemens, a spokesperson for AFT St. Louis Local 420, argued to The Daily Beast that Schmitt’s campaign and focus on the district that his union represents “is reprehensible and pure partisan politics.”
“To me, it feels like this social media campaign is his attempt to get the nod from Donald Trump,” Clemens said. “Our COVID-19 rates are going up and it’s concerning to our union members. But it seems Schmitt is only concerned about his Senate election.”
Rockwood School District, another focal point for Schmitt’s online campaign, also appears to be standing firm with their COVID-19 policies. In a letter to parents obtained by The Daily Beast, the school’s interim Superintendent Tim Ricket said the district’s attorneys advised them that they have the legal authority to enact public health measures, though they were still determining what they might look like.
But at least one parent from the school district—which is about half an hour outside of St. Louis—complained to Schmitt about Rockwood’s policies, the attorney general said. The AG proceeded to send a cease-and-desist letter, insisting he was opening an investigation into the district.
The ongoing battle has also featured new allegations of parents harassing school employees, capping a year of sometimes violent protests by unhinged activists irate at basic pandemic safety measures.
According to local NBC affiliate KSDK, a police officer threatened one of Rockwood’s bus drivers for requiring children to wear masks while aboard. The unidentified officer, who was also a parent and armed, threatened to report the driver to Schmitt because she was complying with the federal mandate for children to wear masks on public transportation, the driver claimed.
“Chastising the bus driver in front of the students for asking them to wear masks is just awful,” Clemens added. “When kids see adults behaving like this, they think this behavior is OK. It’s not OK.”
A Rockwood school district spokesperson told The Daily Beast that Schmitt’s campaign has prompted “an increase in mask protests and anger directed at our administrators and staff for following the protocols as a result.”
“It has certainly led to a great deal of confusion and anxiety for parents and building administrators,” the spokesperson added.
One Franklin County high school teacher, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of professional retribution, also stressed to The Daily Beast that while anti-mask mandate parents “are the minority, they are the loudest and cause the most trouble.”
“All these parents that are complaining to Schmitt, or storming school board meetings, are honestly a small portion of our parent population,” he added. “From what I’ve seen, they’re the same parents who believe in conspiracy theories and say masks are child abuse.”
That demographic, however, may overlap considerably with Schmitt’s targeted voting base. On his personal Twitter account, which often retweets his official AG handle, Schmitt has doubled down on far-right pandemic rhetoric.
“Mask mandates are COVID theatrics from petty tyrants who want a forever-pandemic,” Schmitt tweeted on Wednesday.
In another tweet, Schmitt added: “If a school [district] wants the power to force the masking of a 5 year old against the wishes of a parent—ask the legislature for permission. They won’t because they know what the answer will be.”
According to Piper, who used to teach 11th grade American literature in Maryville, a town of 12,000 on the Iowa border, Schmitt’s “crusade against schools trying to protect kids is causing mass chaos across the state.”
“I live in a tiny town in a really rural area—Schmitt didn’t send my daughter’s school a letter,” Piper said, but she suspected officials were spooked by him anyway. The school did not respond to a request for comment.
Piper added that throughout her almost two decades in education, it was impossible to fathom a public official might “do something as bold as to ask parents to send photos of children to a random email to push his political campaign.”
Schmitt’s spokesperson insisted that while the attorney general’s office asked “parents for evidence that their school district is continuing to impose mask mandates, quarantine orders, and other public health orders,” it never “asked for, nor do we need, photos or videos of children.”
But critics like Piper said the political play by Schmitt is a stark and heinous one.
“This is an alternate dimension, I don’t even know what this is,” she told The Daily Beast. “This is pure chaos that could cause deaths—all for a seat in Washington.”
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