ST. PAUL — A lawsuit filed in Ramsey County on Friday, Sept. 3, seeks to force Gov. Tim Walz to issue a statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools.
The suit, brought by a group of parents of children in schools without coronavirus mask mandates, seeks to have a judge compel Walz to declare a new state of emergency to issue the mandate.
It’s unclear if such a reach from one branch of government into another is legal for an emergency declaration. It’s also unclear how Walz will respond. A spokeswoman for Walz said Friday afternoon they had yet to see the actual suit and would comment when they had reviewed it.
Regardless, Walz could declare a new peacetime emergency right now, and those sweeping powers would give his administration the authority to require masks in schools.
But the governor, who is widely expected to seek re-election next year, has thus far declined to declare a new COVID emergency after the Legislature ended original declaration at the end of June after 16 months. That decision was part of a horse-trading agreement between Walz and Republicans who control the state Senate to balance the state’s two-year budget and avoid a government shutdown.
It also happened when coronavirus cases had bottomed out, vaccinations were chugging along, and many believed the pandemic was in its final throes.
Then the delta variant emerged, coursing its way primarily through the unvaccinated population, which includes schoolchildren, especially those younger than 12 who not eligible to receive any vaccine.
While it isn’t known whether the delta variant is actually more harmful to children than previous variants, pediatric intensive care units have been filling up across the nation as delta infects children, sending somewhere around 1% of them to the hospital, shattering the previously held idea that COVID-19 posed little risk to kids.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health currently recommend universal masking for schools, but that’s just a recommendation. St. Paul, Stillwater, Minneapolis and a number of other metro districts are requiring masks for in some or all grades, but many are not. In rural areas of the state, mask mandates appear to be the exception.
The principal legal argument of the lawsuit rests on a portion contained in the Minnesota Constitution drafted in 1857 that mandates the state provide education to all students. The lawsuit argues that the Constitution and legal interpretations of it demand that such an education must include a safe setting.
Allowing unvaccinated, unmasked people to sit in a classroom for hours isn’t safe, the lawsuit contends.
“We believe that mandatory masking is essential to the safety, health and wellbeing of our children, as well as staff members at schools, and those visiting school sites,” said Dr. Loucresie Rupert, a Winona physician, and one of the parents involved in the lawsuit.
It’s not known for certain how much masks reduce the spread of delta in the real world, but there is overwhelming agreement among health experts that — when the right masks are worn correctly — they can make a substantial difference, although not as much as getting vaccinated or not gathering indoors at all.
One recent study by a CDC-funded research group used a computer model to project that universal masking alone can reduce student infections by between 26 and 78%. The study has not been peer-reviewed.