Appeals court rules that some Iowa schools can impose mask mandates

By: - January 25, 2022 2:58 pm

Boys and girls sitting at desks, raising hands. (Photo by Halfpoint Images/Getty Images)

Some Iowa schools can require face masks to comply with federal protections for students with disabilities, according to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

However, not all schools can justify a mask mandate for all students, the appellate court said. The ruling softens a prohibition on enforcement of a 2021 Iowa law that forbid school districts from requiring students to wear face masks. The appellate court said the injunction already put in place by a lower court last October is too broad in scope and must be more narrowly defined.

The parents of Iowa children who sued the state over its attempts to block mask mandates in schools have “thoroughly documented their substantial risk of contracting COVID-19 and incurring serious illness,” the appeals court ruled, adding that any such injury would be “fairly traceable to” the new law.

“The public interest also benefits from enjoining current enforcement (of the ban on mask mandates) because it enables schools to require masks that reduce the spread of a dangerous, highly transmissible disease,” the appeals court added.

Iowa families, the court said, “have been forced to choose between their children’s lives and the quality of their education.”

The appeals court held that the new Iowa law seeking to do away with mask mandates in schools actually allows such mandates in some Iowa schools because, as written, it bans mask mandates unless they are required by “any other provision of law.”

The appeals court found that mask mandates are, in some cases, required by federal law because they are necessary for certain schools to comply with the federal Rehabilitation Act and, most likely, the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The appeals court said the district court had failed to address that issue and instead had “assumed” the new law banned mask requirements regardless of federal disability law.

The court also noted that the families who are suing the state over the new law are likely to succeed on the merits of their case “because mask requirements constitute a reasonable modification and schools’ failure to provide this accommodation likely violates the Rehabilitation Act.”

That act states that no disabled citizen shall, by reason of their disability, be excluded from participating in, or be denied the benefits of, any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Appeals court says law allows mask mandates

In early 2020, many schools and school districts in Iowa moved to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. When they later reopened for in-person classes, the Iowa Department of Education recommended mask-wearing at schools, and many districts imposed broad mask mandates.

In May 2021, Reynolds signed into law the measure that prohibits schools and school districts from requiring anyone wear masks on school grounds unless otherwise required by law.

In response, all Iowa schools and school districts with mask mandates terminated them. As a result, some parents withdrew their children from school, citing an increased health risk.

Arc of Iowa then sued the state in early September on behalf of disabled students and their parents in 10 Iowa school districts, citing the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.  On Oct. 8, 2021, the district court granted their request for a preliminary injunction, after which 24 school districts again imposed some form of mask requirement.

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Reynolds appealed the district court ruling. She argued that the families lacked standing to pursue their case in court, that they had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies before suing, and that the district court abused its discretion in granting the injunction.

Noting that Reynolds and the other defendants “do not contest that heightened risk of severe injury or death from COVID-19, or inferior remote learning, constitute injuries sufficient to provide standing,” the court found that the families had standing to sue over the new law and could have their case heard in court.

Blocking the enforcement of the ban on mask mandates “allows schools to craft mask requirements tailored to plaintiffs’ children’s needs and those of other students who may require accommodations related to masks,” the court said, while adding that “an absolute universal mask mandate might violate disability law by forcing students unable to wear masks due to disabilities — including some of the plaintiffs’ children — to do so.”

The court said the plaintiffs in the case “are not harmed by the absence of mask requirements at schools their children do not attend” and noted there are schools where there are no disabled children and so a ban on mask mandates in those schools would not violate federal disability law.

Because of that, the court said, a proper injunction would establish that federal disability law requires mask wearing as a reasonable accommodation for disabled students, and would establish that the new Iowa law allows for mask mandates to protect such students.

A proper injunction also would prohibit the state from “preventing, delaying, or failing to provide such reasonable accommodations,” and would ensure that the plaintiffs’ schools “may impose mask requirements as reasonable accommodations” for their disabled students.

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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. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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