Federal School Mask Ruling Provides Mixed Results for Iowa Schools

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Iowa schools will be able to implement universal masking rules where necessary to protect students with disabilities, but a statewide order blocking Iowa Republicans’ ban on school mask mandates is unnecessary, a federal court ruled Tuesday.

The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit found that a lower court’s order blocking Gov. Kim Reynolds’ ban on school mask mandates across Iowa was too broad, but the judges agreed that under federal law, requiring masks was a reasonable accommodation schools can enforce to ensure students with disabilities can safely attend school.

Tuesday’s decision comes in a case brought by the ACLU of Iowa, Disability Rights Iowa, and several other organizations and law firms on behalf of the disability rights organization The Arc of Iowa and 11 parents of children with disabilities. The families and disability rights advocates sued Reynolds over her ban and demanded that the school districts their children attend be allowed to require masks.

Tuesday’s ruling is something of a split decision on Reynolds’ ban, which she signed into law in May 2021. The measure has been on hold since October due to a preliminary injunction from a federal judge.

The three-judge panel decided the plaintiffs had successfully shown a risk of harm to their children under the law but found a statewide injunction wasn’t relevant to the parents’ needs.

“Plaintiffs are not harmed by the absence of mask requirements at schools their children do not attend,” the court ruled. “Further, to the extent that some schools in Iowa do not encounter anyone whose disabilities require the schools to make others wear masks, [the anti-mandate law] may prohibit those schools from imposing mask requirements without violating federal disability law.”

Tuesday’s ruling means the families and disability rights advocates can continue pursuing their lawsuit against Reynolds. The case will now return to a district court, which must reissue a narrower order blocking the law only for the schools and districts attended by the plaintiffs’ children, while also preventing the state from enforcing the law in situations where masks are required to accommodate kids with disabilities.

Despite the muddled nature of the ruling, Rita Bettis Austen, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa, hailed Tuesday’s decision as a victory for students with disabilities.

“No parent should have to choose between their child’s health and safety and their education, but that is the terrible position that the state put our clients in,” Bettis Austen said in a statement. “It’s important to note that the court’s reasoning also means that even schools that are not named in the lawsuit should be requiring masks when needed to accommodate students with disabilities so they can go to school with their peers.”

The Iowa State Education Association was less pleased by the ruling and expressed concern that many schools would be prevented from instituting mask rules that protect children.

“The ISEA continues to support local school districts and their many efforts to keep students, employees, and communities safe. This includes an assortment of COVID-19 mitigation efforts including physical distancing, masking, and supporting vaccines for those who can receive them,” ISEA President Mike Beranek said in a statement. “The federal ruling today is disappointing because it removes the ability of local school districts to make a very important health and safety decision about their specific populations.”

Mask requirements have been shown to substantially reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in K-12 schools, but Republican leaders in Iowa have nonetheless pursued policies that have let COVID-19 run rampant among children and their families.

Iowa has recorded more than 5,000 new cases of COVID-19 per day on average over the past two weeks, with children 17 and under recording the highest rate of positive tests, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health. As of Tuesday evening, 32 children–including 19 aged 11 or younger– are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Iowa.

 

By Keya Vakil
1/25/22

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