Attorney general sues JC Schools, CPS over mask mandates; CPS calls lawsuit a ‘waste’ of tax money
COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)
The Missouri Attorney General's Office has filed another lawsuit against Columbia Public Schools and, for the first time, against the Jefferson City School District over the districts' renewed, temporary mask mandates.
CPS later shot back, saying it will "aggressively" fight the action.
According to court documents, AG Eric Schmitt argues school districts don't have the power to impose public health orders for their students.
The Columbia Board of Education approved a temporary mask mandate through Feb. 4 at its meeting on Thursday morning. Superintendent Brian Yearwood can extend the order through Feb. 18 if necessary. JC Schools renewed its mask mandate temporarily last week, requiring them where social distancing isn't possible. The district had a mandate in place to start the fall semester but dropped it as the delta wave subsided.
The Missouri Attorney General's Office filed lawsuits on Friday against 36 districts around the state, including Waynesville in Pulaski County.
Columbia Public Schools called the suit a waste of tax money in a statement Friday afternoon.
"Providing a safe learning environment for all our scholars and staff and keeping our schools safely open are our top priorities," the district said. "Public school districts have the inherent ability under Missouri state law to implement mitigation strategies to keep schools safe and open during a global pandemic. Columbia Public Schools is also listening to the state of Missouri and the guidance provided by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services in combination with other local, state and federal health and medical experts.
"Filing suits against numerous public school districts for making decisions in the interest of safety and keeping scholars in school continues to waste taxpayer dollars and resources, which are better spent investing in our scholars. Columbia Public Schools intends to aggressively defend its decision to do everything possible to keep its scholars and staff safe and its schools open."
Yearwood renewed CPS's mask mandate when students returned to class last week, citing a sharp rise in cases among students and staff from the highly contagious omicron coronavirus variant. The district said the virus is sickening students and stretching staff thin, and the mandate was needed to keep the doors open.
Between all 36 lawsuits, there are 76 parents signed on as plaintiffs. Amanda Hamlin is one of the parents named in the Columbia Public Schools lawsuit. In an interview with ABC 17, Hamlin said she signed onto the lawsuit because she doesn't feel like the school district is listening to her family's concerns.
Hamlin's children have special needs; one has autism with sensory issues that prevent him from wearing a mask, the other is legally blind and cannot see when his glasses fog up from wearing a mask.
"There's a lot of children in this in the district that needs special considerations and I don't feel like they're being given those I feel like they're being forgotten and there are parents like myself, there's not a whole lot of us, but we're not going to stop until we're heard," Hamlin said.
JC Schools cited similar issues for renewing its temporary mandate, which also took effect last week.
However, students in CPS are out of class Friday, Monday and Tuesday and JC Schools were out Friday because of the strain caused by the virus. CPS had 217 students positive for coronavirus Friday morning and 69 staff members. The substitute fill rate for this week is about 56%. Teachers have had to cover colleagues' classes because of the rampant illness, district leaders say.
JC Schools reported 72 active student cases and 28 active staff cases as of Thursday.
Schmitt's suit against CPS names three parents as plaintiffs, claiming they want to protect their children from the mask mandate. No parents are named as plaintiffs in the JC Schools case.
Schmitt also sued CPS for its mask mandate last year, and the Columbia Board of Education ended that mandate in December, before the omicron surge that pushed new cases and hospitalizations to record levels statewide. That lawsuit was subsequently dropped.
Schmitt makes several arguments against mask mandates in the CPS lawsuit, including that COVID-19 does not pose a serious threat to children and that natural immunity from infection is better protection against coronavirus than vaccination. The lawsuits also claim that masks haven't been shown to stop coronavirus transmission and that they can be harmful to children.
Missouri House Minotory Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said in a statement that Schmitt's previous round of lawsuits bullied schools into dropping their prior mask mandates, which they had to reinstate when omicron caused new causes to rise to new records.
"Quite predictably, coronavirus infections quickly spread like wildfire among teachers and students, prompting districts to reinstate masks and forcing many schools to close," Quade said. "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.
“Eric Schmitt’s stunning abuse of power is making countless Missouri kids sick and preventing schools from keeping their doors open. He is corrupting his high office for political gain and is unworthy of the authority Missourians have entrusted him.”
Schmitt is running in the Republican primary for Senate to replace U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt.
Check back for updates to this developing story.