Court holds off on statewide mask mandate for Minnesota schools

A lawsuit aimed at overriding local control by directing Gov. Tim Walz to order Minnesota schools to adopt a statewide mask mandate, whether districts object or not, has lost round one in Ramsey County District Court. The lawsuit was brought by a group of parents with children enrolled in districts without a mask requirement in place.

But unlike last year, Walz no longer has the emergency power to impose the requirement unilaterally. And the Star Tribune reports the judge, though seemingly sympathetic, ruled the courts lack the authority to order the executive branch to do anything of the sort.

Ramsey County District Judge Thomas Gilligan rejected the group’s request for a temporary restraining order to direct Walz to declare a peacetime emergency and mandate masks in all public schools.

“While this court is gravely concerned about the public health consequences of the failure of school districts to implement the guidance of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the Minnesota Department of Health regarding the use of masks for children, teachers, and staff in K-12 public schools,” Gilligan wrote in his order filed late Tuesday afternoon, “the judiciary cannot order a co-equal branch of government to exercise its discretionary, political judgment to implement a specific policy.”

Gilligan also raised doubts about whether the group, Parents Advocating for Safe Schools (PASS), has grounds for bringing the action in the first place. Even their attorney acknowledged it’s a longshot, while alluding to other legal Hail Mary options.

Marshall Tanick, one of the attorneys representing the parents, said Wednesday that the judge’s ruling only addresses the motion for a temporary restraining order and does not dismiss the suit on the whole.

“We knew this would be a difficult case, especially at the trial court level,” Tanick said in a statement Tuesday night, “but it’s an extremely important one, and we are examining a number of alternatives, including the possibility of an accelerated or expedited appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court due to the urgency of this matter.”

For his part, Walz indicated he’s all too happy to comply with a court order to clamp down on school districts and reimpose his mask mandate for students and staff statewide.

But during a visit to Jefferson Elementary in Rochester last week, Walz made clear where he stands on such a mandate, pointing out that scientific research supports students wearing masks when in school.

“The safety of students and educators is Governor Walz’s top priority,” the statement read. “That is why he and Lieutenant Governor [Peggy] Flanagan have been traveling the state, listening to school staff and school board members and advocating for Minnesotans to get the vaccine. Our administration will continue working with parents and schools to keep students safe.”

Yet so far, the court seems to be indicating it will take a “pass” on the anonymous parents’ attempt to circumvent local control on one of the most controversial issues in the state by imposing their views on mask mandates on hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans who see it differently.