A group of parents with children who have disabilities, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit Friday to block and strike down Iowa’s law banning schools from requiring students and faculty to wear masks.
The argument in the case is that students with disabilities are blocked from access to an equal education because attending in person, where masks aren’t guaranteed, would risk their health. Federal law mandates students with disabilities have necessary accommodations to ensure they’re able to receive a quality education equal to their peers.
“School districts with students who have disabilities that make them more likely to become severely ill from a COVID-19 infection have a legal obligation to ensure that those children can attend school with the knowledge that the school district has followed recommended protocols to ensure their safety,” the suit reads.
People with disabilities are at higher risk from severe effects of COVID-19, and children under the age of 12 still cannot be vaccinated. Even then, studies show decreased effectiveness of vaccines in some people with weakened immune systems.
Plaintiffs in the Iowa suit have conditions such as asthma, cerebral palsy, heart defects, sickle cell anemia, Down syndrome, and weakened immune systems, among others. All conditions put them at increased risk, and many of them aren’t old enough to be vaccinated.
The lawsuit seeks to block enforcement of the law while the case moves through federal court. Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo, and 11 school districts are named as defendants.
“The Reynolds administration has shown a callous disregard for our children with disabilities, and their parents are exhausted and overwhelmed trying to navigate individual situations,” said Julie Russell-Steuart, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party’s Disability Caucus in a statement to Starting Line.
“Some have tried to adjust IEPs or 504s to stipulate social distancing or leaving a class early to reduce encounters in the halls, but without everyone required to wear a mask, this is not enough protection. Virtual learning has proven not to be appropriate for many children with disabilities, and the [Americans with Disabilities Act] protects a ‘free and appropriate education.'”
This week, the US Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation into whether Iowa’s law—and similar mandate bans in four other states—discriminates against students with disabilities.
Reynolds, who signed the law which bans schools and school districts from making decisions based on local conditions in late May, held a press conference Thursday where she doubled down on her view that parents should be the sole decision-makers for whether children wear masks.
Anecdotes on social media suggest that many children aren’t being sent to school with masks. Research shows face coverings are one of the most effective ways to help mitigate spread of the virus.
Last year, the Iowa Department of Education allowed schools to require masks based on “individual situations and data.”
Reynolds said childhood illness is to be expected this fall and that she isn’t worried about the threat of COVID infections to children because the risk of serious illness is “minimal.”
CDC data show that, nationwide, between Aug. 20 and Aug. 26, an average of 330 children were admitted to hospitals every day with COVID-19.
State data as of Wednesday show 5% of Iowa patients hospitalized with COVID are children 17 and below. There are 524 people hospitalized with COVID. In the last seven days, 22% of the positive tests have been among children 17 and below, the age group with the highest rate in the state.
The 2021-22 school year started recently and already infections are spreading, but there are no state requirements that school districts report or track outbreaks.
“By prohibiting any school from imposing a mask mandate,” the lawsuit states, “HF 847 interferes with that school’s ability to comply with its obligations under federal disability rights laws and illegally forces parents of children with underlying conditions to choose between their child’s education and their child’s health and safety in violation of the ADA and Section 504.”
by Nikoel Hytrek