Most students and teachers in the St. Louis region will wear masks in class this week, despite dozens of lawsuits filed Friday by the Missouri attorney general over mask mandates in schools.
While Attorney General Eric Schmitt was spared some districts with and without mask mandates, none of those he sued plan to remove their masks this week during a COVID-19 surge that has left schools understaffed and with low attendance. from students.
“Our community and especially our elected officials should celebrate and support schools during this difficult time, not sue them,” read a statement from the Francis Howell School District, one of at least 19 St. Louis-area districts sued Friday. by Schmitt.
“The lawsuit filed by Schmitt is a waste of taxpayer money, on both sides,” the statement continued. “The claims are tenuous at best and this unnecessary lawsuit represents another attack on public education in Missouri. This latest action by Schmitt is disheartening, unfounded and, frankly, embarrassing.”
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A handful of local districts had dropped mask requirements in early December, in part in response to the threat of lawsuits from Schmitt. But since returning from winter break, most of those districts have reinstated their mask requirements until the current spike in COVID-19 cases subsides.
On Friday, before receiving Schmitt’s lawsuit, the Fox School Board in Jefferson County held a special meeting and extended the district’s mask mandate until the next regular board meeting in February. Earlier this month, former Fox High math teacher Jason Stroups died of complications from COVID-19.
Other districts Schmitt sued, including Lindbergh, Mehlville, Parkway and Rockwood, had adopted mask-optional policies before the winter break, but changed course this month during the latest surge in the virus. Districts plan to require masks through at least February, when health experts predict the surge could taper off.
Schmitt did not sue several local districts currently under mask mandates, including Bayless and Hancock Place in southern St. Louis County and Jennings, Normandy, Ritenour, Riverview Gardens and University City in northern St. Louis County. He also saved the Kirkwood school district, where he lives with his wife and three children.
Maplewood Mayor Nikylan Knapper questioned Schmitt’s timing for the demands, saying on Twitter that Maplewood-Richmond Heights schools have had a mask mandate since the fall of 2020.
“Remember AG Schmidt (sic) is running for United States Senate,” Knapper tweeted. “Stop using your office to bolster your campaign.”
District officials say state law supports their authority to set rules to help maintain a safe school environment.
Schmitt filed the lawsuits even after at least 62 Missouri school districts, 12% of the state’s total, closed for one or more days this month, largely due to a lack of staff. Some of the state’s largest districts, including Springfield, Columbia and St. Joseph, announced plans to close for a few days.
Staffing shortages and high student absenteeism have also caused the closure this month of more than a dozen private and charter schools in St. Louis, in addition to several schools in the Normandy and St. Louis public districts. Schmitt has not sued any charter or private schools over their mask requirements.
In all, Schmitt filed a lawsuit last week against 36 Missouri school districts. Some included district parents as plaintiffs.
At least one local district plans to avoid Schmitt’s attacks. Most members of the Wentzville School Board have refused to adopt a mask mandate, despite pleas from district administrators.
On January 5, the district marked a record 150 students who tested positive for the virus, four times the previous high from the previous year. Dozens of teachers were also sick and only 43% of their classrooms were covered by substitutes, according to district officials.
At a special meeting on January 10, the Wentzville School Board considered a recommendation by Superintendent Curtis Cain to require masks at any school that reached a 3% positivity rate among students and staff.
Cain told the board that the number of cases had dropped significantly when temporary mask mandates were implemented last fall at Duello and Prairie View elementary schools.
“Masks work,” said Cain. “Duello was the most serious situation we had, and the masks turned the tide.”
The board declined to vote on the recommendation. Board member Jason Goodson mentioned the risk of litigation in his arguments against a mask mandate.
In response to another board member’s question about what mitigation measures the district could take, board vice president Dan Brice said, “Drive the bus until the wheels fall off.”
On Thursday, the Wentzville board again declined to vote on any COVID-19 mitigation measures.
By Friday, 17 of the district’s 23 schools had recorded 3% of students and staff testing positive for the virus in the previous 10 days.
Several Wentzville teachers, including Liberty High School’s Katelyn Tock, said they are considering leaving the district because of the board’s position.
Tock tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month, along with her children, ages 3 and 8. At least 22 other Liberty staff members and 62 students have contracted the virus since Jan. 11, according to district records.
“This year, for the first time, I started to contemplate what else I can do,” said Tock, who is in her 11th year as a teacher in the district. “I don’t feel appreciated, I don’t feel respected. It doesn’t seem like the board wants to do anything to protect us.”
Associated Press contributed to this report.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism