Appeals court limits scope of preliminary injunction against Iowa’s school mask ban

In April 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a recommendation for individuals to wear cloth face coverings in public settings to slow the spread of COVID-19. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday that a preliminary injunction stopping the Reynolds administration from enforcing a ban on face masks in Iowa schools is too broad, and should only apply to the 10 school districts named in the lawsuit. The Iowa Department of Education (IDOE) will now be able to enforce the mask ban in the state’s other 317 school districts, although the department must allow schools in those districts to require masking around some students with disabilities, according to the three-judge panel.

The preliminary injunction against the mask ban will remain in effect in the Iowa City Community School District and the Linn-Mar Community School District, as well as Ankeny Community School District, Council Bluffs Community School District, Davenport Community School District, Decorah Community School District, Denver Community School District, Des Moines Public Schools, Johnston Community School District and Waterloo Community School District.

After the appeals court decision was published, Cedar Rapids Community School District Superintendent Noreen Bush announced the district was rescinding its policy requiring universal masking its school buildings.

“CRCSD has always clearly stated that it will abide by any applicable Iowa laws,” Bush said in an emailed statement to district families and staff.” Therefore, in response to this ruling, we will eliminate the universal facial masking requirement within all CRCSD school buildings and related facilities effective Wednesday, January 26, 2022.”

Bush said, “CRCSD encourages continuation of facial masking due to the current COVID-19 transmission rate.” Federal law still requires masks on school buses.

The state’s school mask ban was created in May 2021, when Republicans in the Iowa Legislature pushed through a bill stripping local school districts of the ability to require masks or other face coverings in their schools, regardless of the level of virus spread in a local community. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who supported the bill, signed it in an early morning ceremony as soon as it was delivered to her office.

“The state of Iowa is putting parents back in control of their child’s education and taking greater steps to protect the rights of all Iowans to make their own healthcare decisions,” Reynolds said regarding the bill.

While new laws typically take effect on July 1, a provision in the bill made the mask ban go into effect as soon as the governor signed it. According to legislators, Reynolds had asked for that provision to be included in the bill so the ban would begin during the final weeks of the 2020-21 school year.

In September, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Iowa, joined by Disability Rights Iowa and the Arc of Iowa, an advocacy organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, sued the Reynolds administration on behalf of 11 families with children who were at heightened risk from COVID-19 because schools could not mandate masks.

“Federal disability rights laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act do not allow state or local entities to exclude students with disabilities, to offer lesser services or programs, or to fail to provide reasonable modifications in order to give them equal access to their education,” Susan Mizner, director of the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program, said when the lawsuit was filed.

“For some of our families the lack of universal masking, as the CDC and most public health experts [have said], has made the school environment so dangerous that their children have effectively been excluded.”

Federal District Judge Robert Pratt took the unusual step of issuing a temporary restraining order (TRO) stopping enforcement of the mask ban while the Reynolds administration and attorneys for the families prepared their cases for a hearing on a preliminary injunction.

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

In his decision issued 10 days after the lawsuit was filed, Pruitt said the TRO was necessary because, “Iowa’s mask mandate ban makes it dangerous for disabled or immunocompromised children to attend school, [and] several pediatricians opine it is dangerous for healthy siblings to attend school in person because they risk carrying the virus back to their disabled or immunocompromised siblings.”

Regarding claims that masks pose a potential danger to school-age children, Pruitt noted, “Importantly, the CDC specifically states that there are no known adverse effects from mask use.”

On Oct. 8, Pruitt issued a preliminary injunction, replacing the TRO, that prohibited IDOE from enforcing the mask ban until the lawsuit is resolved.

“It is in the public’s interest to allow local public school districts to exercise their discretion to adopt universal masking policies in an effort to inhibit the spread of COVID-19 and protect the children in their schools,” the judge wrote in his decision.

Pruitt concluded his 27-page ruling by stating, “the Court recognizes issuing a preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy, however, given the current trajectory of pediatric COVID-19 cases in Iowa since the start of the school year, the irreparable harm that could befall the children involved in this case, Plaintiffs’ likelihood of success on the merits, the grave harm to Plaintiffs if [the school mask mandate ban] is not enjoined, and the important public interests at stake, such an extreme remedy is necessary.”

The governor’s office immediately said the state would appeal the decision, and released a written statement from Reynolds: “We will never stop fighting for the rights of parents to decide what is best for their children and to uphold state laws enacted by our elected legislators.”

In its decision on Tuesday, the three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Pruitt that the families are likely to prevail in their lawsuit and that requiring masks around students with certain disabilities is the sort of “reasonable accommodation” required by federal law, but ruled that the preliminary injunction “must be narrowly tailored to remedy only the specific harms shown by the plaintiffs, rather than enjoin all possible breaches of the law.”

According to the judges, “Plaintiffs are not harmed by the absence of mask requirements at schools their children do not attend. Further, to the extent that some schools in Iowa do not encounter anyone whose disabilities require the schools to make others wear masks, [the school mask ban] may prohibit those schools from imposing mask requirements without violating federal disability law.”

Pruitt’s preliminary injunction, of course, did not require any school to impose a mask requirement, it just allowed school districts to create requirements as they were able to do before Reynolds signed the school mask ban into law.

The judges concluded the 11 families are entitled to a preliminary injunction, just not one that applies statewide. They sent the case back to Pruitt with instructions to create a narrower preliminary injunction, one that only applies to the districts that the children of the families, and in other districts, requires IDOE to allow mask-wearing around students with certain disabilities that increase their vulnerability to COVID-19. Unlike Pruitt, the three-judge did not consider whether requiring masks in schools could help prevent infections among medically vulnerable students who share a home with siblings, teachers or others in classrooms where masks are not required.

Among the 10 school districts where the preliminary injunction will remain in effect are five of the state’s largest districts: ICCSD, Des Moines Public Schools, Ankeny, Davenport and Waterloo. Iowa has a total of 327 school districts.

In a written statement, ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen called the appeals court decision that the Reynolds administration must allow schools to require masks around students with certain disabilities “an enormous victory for students with disabilities across Iowa.”

“We are prepared to enforce the decision to protect students with disabilities across the state,“ Bettis Austen said.

Neither Gov. Reynolds nor IDOE have made public statements about the appeals court ruling yet.