A judge has ruled against a group of Minnesota parents who are suing the state and Gov. Tim Walz seeking a statewide requirement that masks be worn in schools as protection from spreading the coronavirus.
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 questioned whether the group, Parents Advocating for Safe Schools (PASS), even has the legal standing to pursue its lawsuit, writing, "PASS has not demonstrated that is has standing, or that it has a justiciable claim for relief."
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."
In a statement Wednesday, the governor's office did not address the judge's rationale for rejecting a temporary restraining order or the issue of a school mask mandate in general. 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."
None of the parents taking part in the suit was identified, but Tanick said they are from across the state, and all of them have children in districts that have opted not to mandate masks.
"We are hopeful that the court will recognize that subjecting students, teachers, staff and visitors to schools to dangerous, hazardous situations where masks aren't required deprives the students of the ability to have an adequate education as guaranteed by the state Constitution," Tanick said when the suit was filed Sept. 3, a few days before most Minnesota schools welcomed students back to classrooms.
Unlike last year, when Walz had emergency powers and could order specific rules for pandemic safety measures in schools, districts now can set their own rules for masking, quarantines and other COVID-19 protocols.
The state departments of health and education, following guidance from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have recommended that all schools mandate masks.
Many districts, particularly in the Twin Cities metro area, require masks for some or all students and staff. But in much of greater Minnesota, districts have opted to recommend but not require mask use in school facilities.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482