KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Many schools in Missouri have started requiring masks in an attempt to stop COVID-19 from spreading among students. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a lawsuit on Tuesday to try and stop them.
Columbia Public Schools, as well as the Board of Education and the superintendent, are among those specifically named in the suit, but a spokesperson for the AG's office said the lawsuit will apply to all districts in Missouri that currently require masks.
KSHB 41 News anchor Dia Wall spoke with Schmitt after the announcement and asked him why he filed the lawsuit.
"I just fundamentally don't believe in government-forced masking of our kids," Schmitt told Wall in the interview. "This lawsuit is really about returning that power back to families and parents who can make that decision."
This comes after many doctors have urged for universal masking in schools, and many Kansas City-area districts have seen surges in case counts following the start of school.
Doctors have also warned the return to school this year is much more dangerous to children because of the delta variant.
Still, Schmitt said the risk for students to become seriously ill because of the virus is low.
"Kids have a very low risk of contracting and transmitting and getting seriously ill," he said. "The good news is, there's been no children under the age of 10 who've died. There's been five under the age of 18. Those are significantly low numbers. That's a positive — it certainly doesn't justify forcing every child, the 1.2 million children in the state, to wear a mask all day long."
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Democrat from Springfield, pushed back against Schmitt's stance.
“As the third pandemic-impacted school year gets underway, it is vitally important for public schools to remain open for in-person learning," she said in a statement. "If Eric Schmitt successfully blocks local schools from adopting mask requirements, more Missouri children will get sick from COVID-19, forcing many school districts to return to remote instruction in order to contain outbreaks. This lawsuit might help Schmitt win a Republican U.S. Senate primary, but it puts the lives and education of Missouri children in jeopardy.”
The attorney general's release said that the lawsuit is being brought on three counts: that mask mandates are "unreasonable," that the boards of education do not have the authority to mandate masks and that masks are "unlawful" to require of school children.
It also stated that mask mandates go against science because school-age children aren't likely to experience severe COVID-19 symptoms.
However, some area doctors have said that there is no way to know which child will end up having a severe case, and masks will keep all children much safer.
According to Schmitt, the lawsuit doesn't impact the ability for a student to wear a mask in schools, but rather gives them a choice.
"This wouldn't ban kids from wearing masks, it just says that those families get to decide how they want to handle that decision," he said.
The lawsuit filed by Schmitt was mentioned in the White House press briefing on Tuesday.
During the briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki indicated President Joe Biden is ready to support districts impacted by the lawsuit.
“We’ve seen – including recently, I think today or yesterday in Missouri – additional steps taken that, in our view, put more kids at risk," Psaki said. "The president thinks that’s completely unacceptable and he has asked his secretary of education – directed, I should say – his secretary of education, to use all his authority to help those school districts doing the right thing, to ensure every one of their students has access to a fundamental right of safe in-person learning.”
Taking to Twitter, Schmitt responded to the White House statement.
"I won't let Washington dictate what we do in Missouri," Schmitt wrote. "I’m fighting against forced masking of kids and allowing families to make those decisions not government bureaucrats."
The Raymore-Peculiar District added a mask mandate last week after initially declining to impose one. The decision was based on concerns about quarantines disrupting school attendance, including 17 students who had to be quarantined after a freshman event.
While not part of the Missouri suit, districts on the Kansas side of the Kansas City area have navigated similar issues.
The Turner School District had 10% of its student population in quarantine after one week of school when it decided to require masks.
The Shawnee Mission School District saw 104 cases in its first week of school despite already having a mask mandate in place.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story reported the wrong number of Raymore-Peculiar students in quarantine during the first week of school. The article has been corrected.