Jeff Landry challenges John Bel Edwards’ authority on K-12 schools mask mandate

Landry has been pushing back on COVID-19 restrictions even as hospitalizations surge

By: - August 7, 2021 12:02 pm
Jeff Landry

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry (Image via RLDF.org).

Attorney General Jeff Landry believes that only Louisiana’s state school board — not Gov. John Bel Edwards — can put a mask mandate in place in K-12 schools this coming school year.

Landry, a Republican, issued a legal opinion stating as much Friday, three days after the governor’s mask mandate for all indoor spaces, including schools, went into effect.

The opinion is not legally enforceable or binding. Schools don’t have to pay attention to it, though it may encourage families upset with schools’ mask requirements to sue over the restriction.

The governor does not agree with the attorney general.

“I think he is completely wrong and the reasoning is very poor,” Edwards said of Landry’s legal opinion during a news conference Friday afternoon. 

Edwards, a Democrat, put the masking requirement in place at the urging of the state’s hospitals, which say they are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and unable to provide adequate care. 

Louisiana has broken its record for highest COVID-19 hospitalization rate every day for the last four days. Of particular concern is the number of children who are severely ill. Doctors have repeatedly warned this week that they are treating more young COVID-19 patients in the hospital than they ever have.

Unlike adults, children under 12 years old aren’t eligible to receive any COVID-19 vaccine, which protects most people against severe illness and death from the virus. 

Landry has ratcheted up political pressure on the governor every day this week over the mask mandate as well as the possibility of any future vaccine mandate the governor might issue.

A few days ago, the attorney general offered advice on how parents should apply for religious and philosophical exemptions to school mask mandates. He’s also offered support to medical students in Northeast Louisiana who didn’t want to abide by their school’s wish that they get vaccinated before starting classes and training. Most recently, he chastised the Catholic bishop of the Lafayette diocese for going along with the governor’s mask mandate in local Catholic schools — one of which Landry’s child attends.  

So Friday’s legal opinion is only Landry’s latest effort to undermine the state mask mandate.

If, as Landry believes, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is the only group with the authority to require masks in school this coming year, then Edwards’ mask mandate would be moot on school campuses. The state school board has not weighed in on whether a mask mandate is needed yet. 

But Edwards is confident that he has the authority to require masks in almost all indoor settings during a public health emergency.

“[Landry] is going out of his way to undermine public confidence in the mitigation measures that will slow transmission at a time that we need it more than in any other time in this pandemic,” the governor said. “It is sad. It is regrettable. It is also irresponsible, and it is dangerous.” 

Landry and Republicans in the Legislature have unsuccessfully tried to curb Edwards’ authority during the pandemic previously.

The courts recently sided with Edwards in a dispute with the attorney general and legislators over whether he could impose a variety of COVID-19 restrictions last year, including a mask requirement. The governor also prevailed in a legal fight with bar owners over whether he could limit their hours of operation because of COVID-19. 

The governor has also spent the week speaking at news conferences alongside a range of local doctors who have applauded the governor’s decision to impose the mask mandate. The physicians have also offered grim pictures of their overstretched hospitals.

Dozens of medical facilities in Louisiana have requested that the federal government bring in support doctors and nurses from outside the state because they are struggling to provide basic medical care in the face of large numbers of COVID-19 patients. 

“This is a different pandemic. It is not the time for threatening lawsuits. It is not the time to mince words about where we are and the situation we’re in,” said Dr. John Vanchiere, a pediatrician who teaches medical students at the LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport. 

“Let’s pay attention to the needs of our children. Put their safety first. Have them wear masks. It is absolutely the right thing to do at this point,” Vancherie said Friday afternoon.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.

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