DULUTH – More than 280 Iron Range parents are suing the area's largest school district over its recent mask mandate.
In a lawsuit filed this week, parents and guardians of students who attend Rock Ridge schools, which include the cities of Virginia, Eveleth and Gilbert, ask that the district's entire COVID-19 mitigation plan be tossed, or that the mask requirement be removed from it.
Another option, it says, is that alternative learning be offered to students who choose not to wear masks. They seek a temporary restraining order against the school district of more than 2,600 students.
The lawsuit claims that "to date, no widely accepted medical or scientific studies have demonstrated the efficacy of masks in stopping the spread of COVID-19 in children." Calling masks a "preventative medical treatment," it says the mandate denies students their right to an education and forces parents into unlawful actions if their kids exercise their rights.
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 school district, asking that the case be dismissed, said in court documents that its plan and mask requirement follows Minnesota Department of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Academy of Pediatrics guidance.
Calling the claims "frivolous," a Minneapolis-based attorney representing the school district said what's being challenged is a safety regulation that was "appropriately" considered and approved.
"The measure is intended to lessen disruptions to education and to literally save lives," attorney Trevor Helmers said. "This is a case with potential life and death consequences at a time when 700,000 Americans have died and case numbers are rising in schools."
Students aren't being denied an education, Helmers said, if parents voluntarily choose to keep their kids home because they disagree with a safety mandate.
Friday, who said he would likely have a decision Tuesday, noted the matter was, in several areas, a case of "first impression" in Minnesota courts. (Similar cases have been litigated nationwide.) That means there is no binding authority on the issue in the state.
In September, a judge ruled against a group of Minnesota parents suing the state and Gov. Tim Walz seeking a statewide requirement that masks be worn in school. The state required masks in schools during the 2020-21 school year but is not requiring them this year. Many districts throughout the state, including Duluth and Hibbing, have instituted their own mask mandates. School districts cannot offer remote learning this year as they did last year, unless they applied to be an online provider.
Rock Ridge Superintendent Noel Schmidt said Friday the district continues to enforce its COVID plan and "is committed to providing a safe and healthy workplace for all our faculty, staff, students and visitors."
Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450