Forty-five mask-requiring school districts in Missouri face lawsuits from Attorney General Eric Schmitt, and some school leaders and elected officials are questioning if he really has the best interest of the state at heart.
Schmitt on Friday filed suit seeking to halt 36 districts from requiring masks amid a record surge in COVID-19 cases. On Monday, he added nine more. Most of the districts are in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas.
Schmitt, in a news release, said parents — not bureaucrats — should be making health decisions for children. He questioned the effectiveness of masks, although experts agree that masks slow the virus' spread and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found strong evidence that mask mandates help.
“Masking children all day in school is ineffective and these endless pandemic restrictions lead to lasting, negative psychological impacts on children and teens," Schmitt, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, said. "This is a fight worth fighting, and I’m not going to back down.”
The legal maneuvering drew a strong rebuke from one of the state's largest districts. A statement from the Francis Howell School District in St. Charles County, near St. Louis, called the lawsuit “a waste of taxpayer money — on both sides" and “an attack” on public education.
“This latest action by Schmitt is disheartening, unfounded, and frankly, shameful,” the statement read.
Some elected officials questioned whether political motives weren't behind Schmitt's push.
“Stop using your office to bolster your campaign," Maplewood Mayor Nikylan Knapper wrote on Twitter.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, a Democrat, called the lawsuits “a clear but unsurprising political stunt."
“Kansas City government and I personally will evaluate all available methods to support our teachers and students in this nuisance litigation. Our state lawyer’s ongoing harassment of Missouri’s schools should be sanctioned by the State Bar,” Lucas wrote on Twitter.
Schmitt's spokesman Chris Nuelle said school districts were given ample time to comply.
“Attorney General Schmitt is simply doing the job he was elected to do: working on behalf of all 6 million Missourians and enforcing the rule of law,” Nuelle said in an email.
Melissa Randol, executive director of the Missouri School Boards' Association, said the organization has asked to meet with Schmitt but his office has not responded. She said in a statement Tuesday that public schools were focused on keeping classrooms open and avoiding a return to virtual learning.
“We need leaders, such as our Attorney General, coming to the table helping us keep our doors open, not forcing us to spend our taxpayer dollars on lawsuits that take precious resources from our classrooms,” Randol said.
Schmitt has not sued any charter schools over mask mandates. Nuelle said the office is still evaluating “legal options."
Schmitt has already won one lawsuit over public COVID-19 restrictions. In November, Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green declared that health orders issued by local authorities under state health regulations were “null and void."
The lawsuits are among many filed or joined by Schmitt since he took office in 2019. He sued China over the coronavirus, to no avail. He also signed on to a failed lawsuit seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
While mask mandates draw the ire of Schmitt and some parents, some students are speaking out in favor of them.
For example, this month, around 120 students and Hickman High School in Columbia staged a walkout to protest the school board's decision to drop a mask mandate. Days later, the board reinstated the mandate due to spiking cases; it's among the districts Schmitt sued.