Reynolds warns of ‘improper expansion’ of disability law in mask-mandate case

By: - February 16, 2022 3:28 pm

Surgical mask hanging inside school on locker. (Photo by Jenna Ardell/Getty Images)

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is asking a federal appeals court to reconsider a decision allowing some Iowa schools to impose face-mask mandates.

In recent court filings, attorneys for the governor argue that a recent ruling permitting mask mandates in some Iowa schools will “cause chaos” and result in an unprecedented and “improper expansion of federal disability law.”

The governor’s action extends the litigation between the state and certain school districts that claim they have the legal right to mandate the use of face masks in attempting to protect students by slowing the spread of COVID-19.

In 2020, the Iowa Department of Education recommended mask-wearing at schools, and many districts imposed broad mask mandates. But in May 2021, Reynolds signed into law a measure that prohibits schools and school districts from requiring people to wear masks on school grounds unless such a mandate was 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 Reynolds and the head of the Department of Education on behalf of disabled students and their parents in 10 Iowa school districts, citing the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, and the Rehabilitation Act. In September, the district court granted their request for a preliminary injunction that effectively prevented the state from enforcing the new law.

At that point, 24 Iowa school districts again imposed some form of mask requirement so that the rights of disabled children would be protected.

Reynolds appealed the court’s decision. In January a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that while not all Iowa schools could justify a mask mandate for all students, the parents who had sued the state had “thoroughly documented” the substantial risk faced by their disabled children in “contracting COVID-19 and incurring serious illness.”

That risk, the panel said, was “fairly traceable to” the new law which the panel said runs counter to the protections afforded disabled children under federal 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 panel stated in its ruling.

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

The panel also noted that while the new law may have sought to do away with mask mandates in schools, it actually allows such mandates in some schools because, as written, it bans only those mask mandates that are not required by “any other provision of law.”

The 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 ADA, the panel ruled.

The ruling was a setback for the Reynolds administration, in part because of the high percentage of school districts that have disabled students whose rights are protected by the two federal laws.

Reynolds: Decision will ’cause chaos’ for schools

In newly filed court papers, attorneys for Reynolds are asking the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to rehear the case en banc – meaning the full court, rather than a three-judge panel, would hear the matter.

Whether the Rehabilitation Act requires schools to impose universal mask mandates is a “question of exceptional importance with far-reaching implications for schools in Iowa and throughout the nation,” they argue, adding that the ruling of the panel “is not entirely clear.”

Calling the panel’s decision “an improper expansion of federal disability law to unprecedented reach,” lawyers for the governor say “confusion” caused by the panel’s ruling is likely to spark a wave of additional lawsuits and “will cause chaos for schools” that are attempting to follow the law.

“If this case isn’t reconsidered en banc, the federal courts will likely face managing an onslaught of litigation asking the courts to micromanage the appropriate public health precautions in schools, with no end in sight,” lawyers for the governor argue.

They say “no court has ever suggested that a school — or any other public accommodation or employer — would need to require universal masking of all people on its premises or risk discriminating against medically fragile disabled individuals. Yet that appears to be what the majority (of the panel) holds here.”

They question whether the disabled students’ federal guarantee of “reasonable accommodations” to attend school can be considered reasonable “if a single disabled student can sue and require nearly everyone in her school district to wear masks to protect her health. Could she also sue to mandate that they all become vaccinated for COVID-19? It’s difficult to see why not under the majority’s logic.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act does not “authorize federal courts to be de facto super-public-health-and-education directors,” the governors’ lawyers argue in their petition. Quoting from past court decisions, they add that allowing the panel’s decision to stand will subject schools and states “to second-guessing by an ‘unelected federal judiciary,’ which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health, and is not accountable to the people.”

ARC of Iowa and the Iowa parents who sued the state have until Feb. 22 to file a response to the governor’s petition.

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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.