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St. Louis-area school districts say judge’s health ruling does not apply to their mask orders

Eric Schmitt, Missouri Attorney General, speaks to the media on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in St. Louis. Schmitt sent a letter to public school districts requiring them to stop enforcing mask mandates and other public health guidelines that were voided by the judgment.
Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, shown in St. Louis last week, sent a letter to public school districts requiring them to stop enforcing mask mandates and other public health guidelines that were voided by the judgment.

Many St. Louis-area school districts will not lift mask mandates and other health orders, despite a call to do so from Missouri’s attorney general.

In response to a letter from Attorney General Eric Schmitt, multiple school districts in the region said a court ruling invalidating health orders does not apply to them, because they did not enact those orders using the authority that was ruled unconstitutional.

On Tuesday, Schmitt, who is also running to represent Missouri in the U.S. Senate, announced he sent a letter to public school districts telling them to stop enforcing mask mandates and other public health guidelines that were voided by the judgment.

Then on Wednesday, the attorney general’s office went a step further, calling on “concerned parents” to reach out to Schmitt’s office to report districts that are in violation of the order.

Cole County Circuit Court Judge Daniel R. Green ruled last month that only elected officials have the authority to enact health orders like those requiring masking or other COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

“Missouri statutes give elected legislative bodies, not individual health agency directors, authority to create county-wide laws related to communicable disease,” Green wrote.

School officials have been consulting legal advisers to decide how to navigate this new ruling. Many have decided it does not apply because elected school boards did approve the health measures, according to district officials and letters sent to parents.

St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams sent a letter to parents Thursday evening.

“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,” Adams wrote.

There are other legal reasons this may not apply to school districts, said Paul Ziegler, CEO of EdPlus, a cooperative of about 60 public and charter school systems.

“School boards still have the authority under Missouri statute to handle communicable diseases, but also make rules and regulations for safe and orderly operation of schools,” Ziegler said.

In an email response, Schmitt’s spokesperson Chris Nuelle denied districts have this legal authority.

“The legislature has not delegated authority to school districts or school boards to issue public health orders, and the recent Cole County ruling further supports that,” Nuelle wrote.

The Cole County ruling does not take effect until Dec. 22, so even districts with policies that did not rely on a board vote will have time to bring those policies before school boards to make sure they are on solid legal ground, Ziegler said.

The Parkway School District is doing just that. Its board did not vote on a mask mandate and now plans to vote on public health orders starting at its Dec. 15 meeting.

“Before we start the second semester, we want to take time to review our health and safety plans, and current health conditions in our schools and community,” Parkway Superintendent Keith Marty wrote to parents. “Moving forward, the board intends to review and approve plans at its monthly meetings, so they will review plans on December 15 and again on January 19.”

In a letter to parents, Rockwood’s interim Superintendent Tim Ricker also said the district’s attorneys have advised that the district does have the legal authority to enact public health measures. Rockwood’s health mitigation plan was presented to its school board, but the board did not actually vote on it.

Ricker said the board was already considering possible adjustments to pandemic protocols.

“Once our attorneys have provided us with their full analysis of the Attorney General’s opinion, we will follow up with the Board of Education and our health advisors to discuss any necessary changes to our current mitigation strategies, as well as the plan we are developing for the second semester, which we will be sharing with families early next week,” Ricker wrote.

‘Pump up his base’

On Wednesday, Schmitt tweeted what he said was a complaint from a parent in the Rockwood School District. The attorney general’s office sent a cease-and-desist letter to that district and said it is opening an investigation into the matter. Schmitt also tweeted complaints that he said came from parents in Columbia Public Schools, Springfield Public Schools and Sedalia Public Schools.

This is an issue that resonates with Schmitt’s political base, said Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University.

“His purpose is a political one; he's running for the U.S. Senate,” Warren said. “He wants to placate his base, pump up his base. And he probably is doing a good job of it by doing just what he's doing now.”

Nuelle said this criticism is “completely unfounded and ridiculous.”

Schmitt called for parents to submit videos and photos of evidence of mask mandates to his office. Ziegler said that’s putting districts in an awkward position.

“It encourages community members to seek out that evidence,” Ziegler said. “If we had other situations where random people from the community were coming in on campus and taking pictures of kids, we'd probably report it to law enforcement.”

Ziegler worries this could violate students’ privacy and potentially the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act.

Nuelle said the attorney general’s office has received thousands of complaints, including video and audio of district officials, and does not need photos or videos of children to counter mask mandates.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.