Parents group sues state of Minnesota, seeks statewide mask mandate for schools

A sign hangs on a doorway to an empty classroom.
A sign giving students tips on proper mask wearing hangs in the doorway of a classroom at Kennedy Elementary in Hastings, Minn., on Sept. 1, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

Updated: 2:30 p.m.

A group of parents of students at Minnesota K-12 schools that have not implemented mask mandates are suing the state, asking the court to order Gov. Tim Walz to enact a statewide mask mandate for schools amid a rise in COVID-19 cases.

The lawsuit filed Friday in Ramsey County by a group calling itself “Parents Advocating for Safe Schools” (PASS) asserts that a provision in the Minnesota Constitution gives students "a fundamental right to an 'adequate' education."

"This fundamental right to an adequate education requires at a minimum that Minnesota students be allowed to attend schools that provide a healthy and safe environment," the lawsuit states. "... Schools that do not impose mask mandates do not provide such a healthy and safe environment."

But there could also be separation of powers issues at play because the proposed remedy aims to have the judicial branch direct the executive branch to take a particular action.

Among the possible outcomes the lawsuit seeks is a court order requiring Walz to declare a new peacetime emergency to address the pandemic — the previous one expired in July — and then to issue an executive order that all school districts and schools in the state "impose and enforce a mask mandate."

“We believe that mandatory masking is essential to the safety, health and well-being of our children, as well as staff members at schools, and those visiting school sites,” Dr. Loucresie Rupert, a Winona physician and one of the parents involved in the suit, said in a news release.

A hearing on the lawsuit has not been scheduled.

The group’s attorney, Marshall Tanick, said Sunday he hopes the court will act fast.

“Timing is important because many schools have already started,” he said. “Almost all of them are starting right after Labor Day so timing is important. So each day students are allowed to come to school without masks is another day of risk for students, teachers, staff, visitors and schools.”

Teddy Tschann, a spokesperson for Walz, issued a response stating that "as a former high school teacher, Governor Walz will always prioritize the health and safety of Minnesota students, and he expects the Legislature to help him. The Governor’s Office is reviewing the complaint and will continue to work with schools and parents to keep kids safe."

The end of Walz's previous peacetime emergency in July meant an end to his ability to order a statewide mask mandate. Since that time, some individual school districts have enacted their own policies — sometimes after contentious public meetings — as the more-contagious delta variant has driven an increase in COVID cases.

But other districts have not. The lawsuit points to the Albert Lea school district which did not require masks when classes started last month. It soon saw several dozen people test positive for COVID-19, and has since reinstated a mask mandate for some grade levels.

Courts in other states have struck down laws that prohibit mask mandates. This case is unique in seeking to put a requirement in place.

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