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2022 Lawton, Oklahoma Chautauqua June 21 - 25

Missouri attorney general tells localities and schools to stop mandating masks

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Missouri school districts and the state attorney general are at odds over mask mandates and what a recent court decision really means. Sarah Kellogg of St. Louis Public Radio reports.

SARAH KELLOGG, BYLINE: Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Missouri has never issued a statewide mask mandate. But it also has never issued a ban. That allowed local governments, health departments, even school districts to make their own decisions regarding masks and other mitigation strategies.

Now, thanks to a recent court ruling, that decision-making power appears to be in jeopardy. The decision by Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green ruled that a law giving local health departments the ability to issue public health orders, like mask mandates, was unconstitutional. Even though Attorney General Eric Schmitt essentially lost that case for the state, he's now embracing the ruling and taking it one step further. He's trying to apply it to not only local health departments, but also to school districts.

Mehlville School District Superintendent Chris Gaines specifically cited the ruling at a special meeting of the district's board of education.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS GAINES: Judge Green's ruling has inhibited our ability to keep students and employees safe from transmission.

KELLOGG: Attorney General Schmitt recently sent letters to not only local health departments, but also to school districts. They said, in essence, mask mandates are no longer valid. He also warned he could take legal action against those who continue to enforce mandates. Soon, school districts throughout the state modified their mask mandates, making them optional as opposed to mandatory, with some of them to go into effect after the holiday break.

But other schools are standing their ground, saying the attorney general's actions are both wrong and encroach on their authority. After receiving Schmitt's letter, Joe Hatley, an attorney hired by the Lee's Summit School District located near Kansas City, sent one right back.

JOE HATLEY: In the eyes of the courts, the attorney general is just another lawyer with an opinion. His opinions aren't binding. He doesn't have the authority to force school boards to do anything like this.

KELLOGG: Though Lee's Summit School District had already voted to modify some of its mask mandate policies before the court ruling even occurred, Hatley says, ultimately, the decision does not bind school districts. Eric Schmitt's actions against mask mandates is a stance popular with many Republicans here, and it comes as he runs for Senate. He's in the middle of a crowded Republican primary, which includes former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens. Saint Louis University political science professor Ken Warren sees it as a campaign ploy.

KEN WARREN: 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.

KELLOGG: Schmitt did not reply to a request for comment, but a spokesman previously denounced such criticism as ridiculous. He also said the attorney general has received thousands of complaints regarding mask mandates in schools.

In addition to what is perceived by some as an overreach of his power, Eric Schmitt is also being criticized for his lack of action concerning the ruling. Because his office represented the state's department of health, which lost the case, it falls to him to appeal the decision, something Schmitt has not yet done despite the health department's urging. Robert Gatter teaches at Saint Louis University School of Law. He says this lack of action from Schmitt has only caused more confusion.

ROBERT GATTER: Shockingly, the attorney general has turned them down and decided, nope, I won't defend the state law, but I will threaten people about how I can take action during this time of confusion. It's unconscionably poor public service.

KELLOGG: Recently, both St. Louis and Jackson County filed motions to challenge the court ruling limiting the mask mandate powers of health departments. In the meantime, schools across Missouri now appear to have a tough choice - rescind their mask mandate or face a possible suit from their state's attorney general.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Kellogg in Jefferson City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Kellogg