Federal judge hears arguments on Iowa’s school mask mandate ban

By: - September 10, 2021 1:06 pm

Masked students begin the year at King Elementary School in Des Moines. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Public Schools)

An Iowa disability group and families of students with disabilities asked a federal district judge on Friday to issue an injunction against Iowa law to allow school districts to require masks.

The ACLU of Iowa filed the lawsuit last week on behalf of the Arc of Iowa and the 11 families with medically fragile children. They allege that students with disabilities face “irreparable harm” if they attend schools without universal masking due to an increased risk of contracting COVID-19, but that remote learning options are insufficient.

The case argues that by not allowing school mask mandates, Iowa is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“When you look at the harm that our clients face, the harm that thousands of other children with disabilities within Iowa face — the harm could be reduced or actually prevented if school districts are allowed to, in their judgment, adopt universal masking,” said attorney John Freedman, arguing in favor of an immediate injunction.

A representative for Gov. Kim Reynolds and Department of Education Director Ann Lebo responded that the parents of students with disabilities can ask schools to provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities. Concerns about individual student safety should be handled through legal proceedings with the school, said Iowa Assistant Attorney General Sam Langholz, rather than an injunction against the statewide law.

“This is now the third year that Iowa’s students have been affected by the pandemic,” Langholz said, noting that strong opinions on the law were “not a basis” for a restraining order against it. 

Langholz said the law, House File 847, includes a “saving clause.” If a federal law required students to wear masks in schools, that would override the state law prohibiting mask mandates. However, he said, there was no such federal law.

“I want to be absolutely clear that these defendants do not agree that any federal law that they’re aware of … mandates, as a matter of law, that universal mask mandates for an entire school district [exist],” Langholz said.

Senior Judge Robert W. Pratt presided over the hearing. He did not say when he would decide whether to issue an injunction.

If he does issue a temporary restraining order against the law, Iowa school districts would be allowed to once again require universal masking at their buildings. But even that doesn’t necessarily mean that mask mandates will click immediately into place: school districts would need to decide whether to require face coverings, a process that has been contentious in other states

The ACLU case is not the only challenge to Iowa’s prohibition on local mask mandates. A Polk County judge on Thursday heard arguments in the case of one central Iowa mom who alleges the law is unconstitutional, the Des Moines Register reported. That case could also lead to an injunction.

The U.S. Department of Education in August launched an investigation into Iowa’s law against school mask mandates. The federal investigation is aimed at determining whether the law violates the rights of students with disabilities.

Reynolds has been insistent that parents should decide whether their children wear masks to school. In a press conference last week, Reynolds declined to recommend mask-wearing, responding “it doesn’t really matter” due to the law prohibiting mandates.

The Centers for Disease Control recommend that students, staff and teachers wear masks indoors at schools. 

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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.