Lawsuit: Iowa’s school mask mandate ban violates disability rights

By: - September 3, 2021 4:29 pm

Heather Preston, left, is one of 11 parents suing Gov. Kim Reynolds over a ban on school mask mandates. (Photo courtesy of the ACLU of Iowa)

Eleven families have partnered with a disability rights group to sue the state of Iowa over a law that prevents school districts from requiring face coverings. 

“Getting HF 847 blocked is urgent for the state of Iowa, because this law puts vulnerable kids in a dangerous situation,” said Rita Bettis Austen, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa. “Schools need to be able to require everyone to wear a mask in order to meet their obligations to these children.”

The ACLU will represent the Arc of Iowa, a disability rights group, and families from across the state in the case. A complaint filed Friday names Gov. Kim Reynolds, Department of Education Director Ann Lebo and 10 school districts as defendants. 

The complaint contends that students with disabilities or pre-existing conditions are unable to safely attend school without universal masking. Iowa’s law forbids mask school mask requirements, thereby violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the lawsuit claims.

“With the state refusing to allow schools to require masks, it endangers everyone, but especially students with disabilities,” said Susan Mizner, director of the ACLU Disability Rights Program.

Mizner said even schools that do provide remote options for students with disabilities are not providing an adequate service under the A.D.A.

Heather Preston is a Des Moines mother of two 11-year-old students with disabilities. She spoke to reporters Friday afternoon at an ACLU press conference.

“It’s terrifying for a parent to have to worry every day about the physical safety of their child, and to have to choose between their child keeping up with their education and their child becoming seriously ill or perhaps even dying,” said Preston. “That’s a choice that no parent should have to make.”

Reynolds has been staunch in her support of the law. At a press conference Thursday, she declined to recommend that students wear masks in school. Reynolds once again emphasized that she believes parents should choose whether their children wear masks to school.

“There’s data on both sides that support masks and the negative effects of masks,” Reynolds said. “They’re going to have to take that information, just like vaccines, and make an informed decision as to what is best for their child.” 

The Centers for Disease Control recommend that students and school staff should wear masks indoors.

Bettis Austen did not predict when a judge might consider the case.

“We’ll be asking that the court block this law as soon as possible,” she said. “We know how urgent this is for so many families, including our clients, across the state.”

Lawsuits and investigations abound nationally

The ACLU filed a similar lawsuit last week against a South Carolina law that prohibits school mask mandates. That case is structured similarly, with disability rights groups and the parents of children with disabilities acting together.

Lawsuits about the issue are also pending in Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Arizona

The ACLU case is the second Iowa lawsuit on the matter: A Council Bluffs mother launched a lawsuit against the state last week over the same law.

Meanwhile, the federal Department of Education has opened a civil rights investigation into the states that banned school mask mandates. That investigation focuses on the rights of students with disabilities.

Mizner said the investigation was “congruent” with the Iowa lawsuit.

“This is a very clear disability discrimination situation,” Mizner said.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.