Nearly 300 parents sue Minnesota school district over mask mandate

Overwhelming local opposition to the requirement for students and faculty at Rock Ridge Public Schools to mask up has led more than 275 parents to sue the northern Minnesota school district. The Star Tribune says a decision in the potentially ground-breaking case could come as early as today.

Virginia District Judge Robert C. Friday heard arguments Friday, with more than 130 people attending the virtual hearing.

“Plaintiffs are not here to deny the seriousness of COVID-19 or the efficacy of vaccines or to belittle the concerns of parents of children with compromised immune systems,” said Robb Enslin, a Duluth-based attorney for the parents, one of whom is a school board candidate. “The plaintiffs are here because they need their children to go to school to get their education.”

The lawsuit contends it should be up to parents and students to make the choice of whether or not they need to wear a mask for medical reasons. They also claim the district’s policy effectively criminalizes the issue if families feel strongly enough to pull their children out of school, according to the Duluth News Tribune

According to court documents, the 283 parents who signed on to the lawsuit want the school district to either cease implementation of its COVID-19 mitigation plan, revise the plan to remove the requirement that students wear masks or create an alternative learning option where parents of students who choose not to wear face masks “will not be subject to criminal prosecution.”

The lawsuit claims that the mask mandate does not further the health and safety of students, staff and visitors and “is arbitrary in its implementation.” It also claims the mask mandate “denies students their right to an education under the Minnesota Constitution and will force parents into unlawful actions should their children exercise recognized fundamental rights.”

The lawsuit follows a tense Sept. 27 school board meeting in which parents pleaded with administrators to leave the decision over whether their kids wear masks up to them. Among those supporting the parents was a fourth grade teacher with two children of his own in district schools.

“The kids want to be in school. They don’t want to wear a mask while they’re here,” teacher Jeff Tesik told the school board. “Those that want to wear a mask in school are. It’s time to listen to the silent majority of the families in the school district. Not everybody’s outspoken. Not everybody’s in your face. Not everybody’s obnoxious. I’m there every day with these kids. They’re OK. Most kids don’t want to wear them.”

Nevertheless, officials in the Iron Range school district have shown no signs of backing down from implementing and enforcing the mask requirement. Administrators insist it’s a matter of protecting students and staff, regardless of the policy’s popularity or lack thereof.

“At the current time, the district will be fully enforcing its COVID-19 plan, including the requirement that all students, staff and visitors wear a mask while in any district facility,” [Superintendent Noel] Schmidt said in a statement. “The district is committed to providing a safe and healthy workplace for all our faculty, staff, students and visitors, and is committed to following its plan as well as the guidance from the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and Minnesota Department of Health.”

Yet in the view of many parents who live in the Virginia and Eveleth area, masks do far more harm than good. With such strong opposition among so many residents, there’s a lot riding on the court’s decision.

“I am responsible enough to take care of my own damn kids. I don’t need help,” Jodi Westby told the Rock Ridge School Board. “You guys teach them how to read, how to add, multiply, subtract, teach them English, teach them proper history, and I’ll take care of the rest.”