JEFFERSON CITY — St. Louis-area schools on Thursday were grappling with increased pushback on masking following a call by the Missouri attorney general for districts to end COVID-19 health orders, or face the possibility of litigation.
“There has been pushback throughout the year but this has definitely escalated it,” said Christine McDonald, spokeswoman for EducationPlus, a nonprofit representing 60 area school districts.
She said resistance has varied by district, with some districts not yet encountering any new resistance.
But a Tuesday warning to districts from Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican running for U.S. Senate, as well as his call on Wednesday for parents to report school districts with mask and quarantine rules, has nonetheless reverberated through communities.
School officials argue they have the authority under state law to implement health rules on campuses despite a ruling by a Cole County judge last month striking Department of Health and Senior Services regulations on health orders.
“We still aren’t making any changes and stand by the fact that elected school boards have put policies in place to keep kids in school and keep them safe, and they have the ability to do that,” McDonald said.
She pointed to a letter by the Missouri School Boards’ Association sent Thursday that says “school districts’ authority and obligation to prevent the spread of contagious diseases in schools has not been impacted.”
The letter cites five state statutes that “give the local school board authority to make health and safety rules,” including one law that gives boards of education “general control of the property and affairs of any school district” and another saying it is unlawful for a child to go to school while sick with “any contagious or infectious disease, or while liable to transmit such disease after having been exposed to it.”
The attorney general’s office contends the November order by Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green invalidated all existing COVID-19 health orders across the state.
But it’s not so simple, said Chuck Hatfield, a Jefferson City attorney and former attorney general’s office official who regularly sues the state on behalf of clients.
“The bottom line is that if there’s a local order that relied on the Department of Health (regulation), that order is probably invalid,” Hatfield said. “But there are some local orders or policies that do not rely on that.
“The suit did not address those,” Hatfield said. “If they’re issued in reliance on some other legal authority, you know, we don’t know — I mean, they’re valid until a court says otherwise.”
In the Rockwood School District, a group of parents at Geggie Elementary School in Eureka, who want students to have the option not to wear masks, gathered at a park before class Thursday to escort their children to the school’s front door.
Most parents involved emailed the school principal and teachers beforehand to inform them that their children wouldn’t be wearing masks on Thursday, said Jennifer Hellwig, who said she had a kindergartner and first grader at Geggie.
She said the parents said the students would be respectful to students wearing masks and to staff who asked them to wear the coverings, Hellwig said.
“Just so that way they had it very clear that if you hand our child a mask they will tell you ‘no, thank you,’” she said. “Some other students I know went to school without them but had them in their backpack … if they didn’t want to be in trouble, so they would be putting them on if they deemed it necessary.”
Some parents within the group gave their children a printout of a cease-and-desist order Schmitt sent to Rockwood on Wednesday, Hellwig said.
She said the parents planned to walk their children to their classrooms but were met at the front door by an administrator and were turned away.
“I feel like we have taken enough precautions within our household, within our neighborhood, within our city and with the county,” she said. “We’re not asking for them to completely demolish masks and the mandate; we’re just simply asking that we as parents have that option for our children.
“There are some students who don’t feel comfortable wearing them,” Hellwig said. “There are some who just don’t like it.”
Hellwig said she spoke to the principal at Geggie on Thursday afternoon and was told that her children were allowed to stay in class that day without masks, but that they would have to go to the library for most of the school day Friday if they were to continue attending school without a mask.
She said her children would decide whether to wear a mask moving forward.
“Honestly I’m terrified of what’s going to happen over the next few days,” said Dr. Walter Mickey, a critical care physician at a local hospital who has two elementary school-age children attending Rockwood. “I have a family member who is immunosuppressed because of an autoimmune disease and medications that they need to treat it.”
Masking “keeps you from spreading the virus, and prevents you from getting it,” he said. “Only having one person masked is not nearly as effective in preventing the transmission of this virus than having both people masked.”
Mickey continued, “We have drunk driving laws; we have laws that prevent us from doing things that put other people at risk unnecessarily.”
Mary Lapak, spokeswoman for the Rockwood School District, said the district’s policies were enacted by district administrators, and that the school board has not voted on the requirements. The board could do so next week, she said.
Lapak said a group of about 20 students at Eureka High School declined to wear masks Thursday. The students were offered masks. Some students took the masks. “Others still refused and they were sent home,” she said.
She said district attorneys have assured officials they have the authority to implement rules “to protect our students and staff,” Lapak said. “We’re also hearing from parents who are pleased” that the district is continuing its COVID-19 policies.
“It has caused a lot of confusion and angst amongst our parents and that’s unfortunate,” Lapak said of Schmitt’s actions this week, adding that district attorneys would be responding to the cease-and-desist letter from the attorney general’s office.
Chris Nuelle, spokesman for Schmitt, said an email address the attorney general’s office launched on Wednesday, “email@example.com,” had received 3,215 emails as of early Thursday afternoon.
“They keep coming in,” Nuelle said. “I mean, they’re absolutely pouring in. Like every minute we get a new email.”
He said most of the emails oppose the masking rules.
“There are some that are in support, and some, you know, trolling emails too,” Nuelle said.
He said Thursday afternoon that the attorney general’s office had sent out 33 cease-and-desist letters to Missouri school districts, and that the office would continue to send the ultimatums.
Districts in the St. Louis area that have received letters include: Rockwood School District, Parkway School District, Kirkwood School District, Ritenour School District, Mehlville School District, Francis Howell School District, Fox School District, Valley Park School District, Webster Groves School District, Affton School District, Clayton School District, Brentwood School District, Lindbergh School District, Fort Zumwalt School District and Wentzville School District.
St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams wrote a letter to district families and employees Thursday saying the masks would continue to be worn in city schools. “To date we have had no significant concerns about wearing masks either from students or parents, largely, we believe, because they see that masks work,” Adams wrote.