Citing new infections, judge extends order allowing schools to impose mask mandates

By: - September 27, 2021 4:50 pm

Iowa school districts were allowed to impose mask mandates under a temporary restraining order on state law. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

A federal judge late Monday extended the temporary retraining order that prevents the state of Iowa from prohibiting mask mandates in schools.

In extending the order through Oct. 11, U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt noted that the list of schools that have implemented a mask mandate in the wake of his initial Sept. 13 restraining order includes eight of the 10 school districts that brought the matter to court, as well as 16 other Iowa school districts.

“Meanwhile, rising COVID-19 rates in Iowa continue to pose a risk of severe illness or death to Plaintiffs’ disabled or immunocompromised children who are too young to qualify for the vaccine,” Pratt said in his ruling Monday. “Enforcement of (the mask-mandate ban) continues to pose a threat of irreparable harm to the children’s health and rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Advocates for the disabled had argued for the extension, saying the virus “continues to rage” in Iowa. In court filings, they said more than 3,000 additional Iowa children were reported positive for COVID-19 last week, representing more than a quarter of the state’s newly reported cases.

In their request for an extension, the disability rights advocates quoted a West Burlington School District school nurse as telling her school board, “I have almost as many COVID positives in the elementary in the first two weeks of school than we had the entire school year last year … At the junior-senior high level, from this date last year, I have triple the amount of cases at that level than last year. The amount of illness that I’ve seen this year is unlike anything I’ve ever seen … I don’t know that I’ve ever sent home as many sick kids this year as I have in the past. Honestly, I’m just exhausted.”

It was on Sept. 13 that Judge Pratt first ruled that Iowa school districts may impose mask mandates on their students, staff and teachers. The decision was issued in response to a lawsuit filed by a disability rights group and several Iowa families sued the state, arguing that students with disabilities face “irreparable harm” when attending schools without universal masking. The lawsuit contended that prohibiting schools from requiring masks was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The initial temporary restraining order barred the state from enforcing the ban on mask mandates until Sept. 28. The plaintiffs in the case then asked the court to extend the order an additional 14 days while it considered a request for a preliminary injunction that would block any effort to enforce the law while the overall case remains pending.

Lawyers for Reynolds resisted that request, arguing there was no good cause to extend the order. In papers filed with the court, they claimed the “temporary restraining order has caused confusion and conflict in schools all across Iowa. Not just as their governing bodies wrestle with the policy question reopened by enjoining the statute — but also as they try to navigate the perilous legal waters flooded by the questions raised by the order’s implications.”

Attorneys for the governor said disabled students — protected by the same laws relied upon by the plaintiffs in their lawsuit — are “harmed by the new universal mask mandates being imposed as a result of the court’s temporary restraining order.”

As evidence of this, they cited the case of Joni Boone, an Ankeny schools’ parent who says in a sworn affidavit that her daughter, enrolled in preschool classes, is deaf and relies on cochlear implants and a sign-language interpreter in the classroom. Boone says that much of her daughter’s communication relies on her ability to see a person’s face so she can see whose lips are moving and who is speaking.

The absence of these facial cues represents a “a barrier between (the girl) and peers and her educators,” Boone says. “I am concerned (she) will struggle if teachers and (her) peers are required to wear masks,” Boone says in her affidavit.

A similar affidavit was filed by a Muscatine schools’ parent, Nicholas Doy, who said his 7-year-old son has a serious hearing impairment. According to Doy, his son’s teacher uses a microphone in class that transmits to his son’s cochlear implants, but the teacher’s mask muffles the sound of her voice and “detracts” from the effectiveness of the system.

Facial expressions are very important to his son’s ability to communicate, Doy says, and “when his teacher and the other students wear a mask, (he) cannot perceive their facial expressions and see their lips.” He says his son was “happier and more engaged” when masks weren’t used in the school, and that Pratt’s ruling has placed his son “in isolation.”

In court papers filed late last week, the plaintiffs argued that “the need for continued injunctive relief in the form of a preliminary injunction is real and urgent. COVID-19 continues to rage in Iowa. The latest data indicates that over the last week, there have been an average of almost 1,800 new cases per day, a rate 50% higher than when this action was first filed. On September 22, more than 3,000 additional Iowa children were reported positive, more than a quarter of the state’s new reported cases.

“A preliminary injunction is now necessary for the very reasons that prompted this court to enter a temporary restraining order: Absent relief, there is a likelihood of irreparable harm in the forms of an increased risk of severe illness or death, loss of educational opportunities, and violation of federal civil rights laws.”

The plaintiffs cited a recent study in Arizona that looked at over 1,000 schools in that state and concluded COVID-19 outbreaks were 3.5 times more likely in schools without universal masking.

They also argued that as of last week, eleven Iowa school districts have recorded more cases of COVID-19 during the new 2021-22 school year than during the entire 2020-21 school year. Those 11 districts represent 33,525 students, or 6.6% of all Iowa public school students, the plaintiffs allege.

“Around one in four Iowa public school children lives in a district that has already recorded 50% or more of the total number of COVID cases that it recorded during all of last year,” the plaintiffs alleged in their response to the state’s claims.

Reynolds had promised to appeal Pratt’s ruling, calling him an “activist judge.”  She said “people should never lose sight of the fact that you have an option to wear a mask,” emphasizing her belief that parents should be able to make that decision for students.

Asked to respond to the argument of the lawsuit — that universal masking was necessary to protect children with disabilities — Reynolds directed reporters to her comments at a press conference earlier this month, where she said that there were online alternatives to in-person learning and that some students had issues wearing masks.

Pratt wrote in his initial decision that it is in the public interest to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially “for the safety of disabled children.”

“Moreover, there is little harm to … permitting the individual public school districts to return to the way in which they were operating prior to [the law’s] passage by leaving a universal mask mandate to their discretion,” Pratt wrote.

The ACLU of Iowa filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Arc of Iowa and a group of Iowa parents.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.