Iowa’s ban on school mask mandates halted by federal judge

Photo by Matt Johnson, cropped and edited

A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) on Monday afternoon that stops the Reynolds administration from enforcing its law prohibiting Iowa school districts from creating their own face mask mandates.

“Iowa’s mask mandate ban makes it dangerous for disabled or immunocompromised children to attend school, but 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,” Judge Robert Pratt of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa wrote in his decision.

Pratt’s order came in response to a lawsuit filed on Sept. 3 by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Iowa, in conjunction with Disability Rights Iowa and the Arc of Iowa, on behalf of 11 families with children who are at heightened risk from COVID-19.

The lawsuit names as defendants Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo and 10 school districts in which the children of the 11 families are students. In arguments before Judge Pratt during the case’s first hearing on Friday, attorneys for the families pointed out that all 10 school districts — which includes the Iowa City Community School District — had universal masking requirements for their buildings before Reynolds signed the school mask mandate ban into law in May.

The ban was contained in HF 847, a bill pushed through on the final day of this year’s legislative session with only Republican votes, which the governor immediately signed into law. It is now Iowa Code Section 280.31, and states that a school district or school “shall not adopt, enforce, or implement a policy that requires its employees, students, or members of the public to wear a facial covering for any purpose while on the school district’s or accredited nonpublic school’s property unless the facial covering is necessary for a specific extracurricular or instructional purpose, or is required… by any other provision of law.“

The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP), among other notable public health experts, have recommended universal use of masks in schools in order to help protect children under the age of 12 and others who cannot be vaccinated. Reynolds, on the other hand, has maintained that decisions regarding whether children wear masks at schools should be left up to parents, and adults in school buildings — both staff and visitors, vaccinated or unvaccinated — should be free to decide whether to mask-up around students.

The governor has falsely claimed there are studies showing masks are not effective at limiting the spread of COVID-19 and studies that show mask-wearing can actually cause harm. Both points are addressed in Judge Pratt’s decision.

“The court has looked at the data concerning the effectiveness of masking to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and it overwhelming supports the CDC and AAP’s recommendations,” Pratt wrote.

Regarding masks as a potential danger, the judge noted, “Importantly, the CDC specifically states that there are no known adverse effects from mask use.”

He concluded, “A universal masking mandate instituted by a school is a reasonable modification that would enable disabled students to have equal access to the necessary in-person school programs, services, and activities.”

Reynolds’ office quickly issued a written statement following the federal court decision, in which the governor said, “Today, a federal judge unilaterally overturned a state law, ignored the decision by our elected legislature and took away parents’ ability to decide what’s best for their child. We will appeal and exercise every legal option we have to uphold state law and defend the rights and liberties afforded to any American citizen protected by our constitution.”

In his decision, Pratt acknowledged that issuing a TRO is “an extreme remedy,” but explained that “if the drastic increase in the number of pediatric COVID-19 cases since the start of the school year in Iowa is any indication of what is to come, such an extreme remedy is necessary to ensure that the children involved in this case are not irreparably harmed.”

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Attorneys for the 11 families had argued that the ban on school mask mandates would cause irreparable harm to the families’ children in three different ways. Pratt found that the plaintiffs will likely succeed on all three counts when the case finally comes to trial.

First, Pratt found that the ban on school mask mandates creates an irreparable harm because it “substantially increases the Plaintiff’s children’s risk of contracting… which in turn substantially increases Plaintiff’s children’s risk of severe illness or death.”

Secondly, Pratt concluded, “Depriving these children of their education when a safe in-person learning option is available, i.e., in-person learning with universal masking, most certainly constitutes an irreparable harm.”

The third irreparable harm is that the ban violates the civil rights of students of disabilities. The judge found the ban violated both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, which guarantee the rights of students with disabilities to receive a education equal to other students in a safe environment.

“Courts presume a violation of a civil rights statute is an irreparable harm,” Pratt wrote.

The Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation into Iowa’s school policies on Aug. 30, to determine if the school mask mandate ban violated the two federal laws Pratt ruled it violates.

In a written statement on Monday evening, ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen said, “We are grateful to the district court for blocking this dangerous law, which put vulnerable kids in harm’s way and violated their civil rights in education.”

“We are relieved that schools across the state will now be able to protect those kids as required by federal law. No parent should be asked to choose between the safety and health of their child and their child’s ability to go to school, but that’s exactly the position that this law put parents across Iowa in.”

The TRO issued by the federal court comes three days after a state court rejected a request for a preliminary injunction to stop enforcement of the ban on school mask mandates. That decision came in the case filed by Fran Parr of Council Bluffs, who has two sons who have started first grade but are being homeschooled because the ban on masks in schools put them at risk of COVID-19.

Parr reacted to news of the federal court decision with a tweet saying she was “so very happy right now.”

In her ruling on Friday rejecting Parr’s request for a preliminary injunction, Polk County District Court Judge Celene Gogerty wrote that Parr had presented “no evidence a mask mandate would be imposed by the plaintiffs’ school board” if the injunction was granted, and therefore had failed to make case for its necessity.

The complaint in the federal case highlighted the fact that the school districts named in the lawsuit made efforts to find a way to mandate masks after Reynolds signed HF 947, and cited actions by ICCSD.

“The Iowa City School Board tasked its attorney with investigating a legal challenge to HF 847, who determined that the school district officials ‘just don’t have the tools we need right now other than simply defying the law.’ Superintendent Matt Degner said that while the school would continue to support CDC recommendations for universal indoor masking regardless of vaccination status, ‘per Iowa law . . . we cannot enforce that face coverings are worn in our buildings or on school grounds at this time.’”

In an email to district families on Monday evening, Degner informed them of the TRO and said the school board “will discuss these developments and determine the next steps at the Board Meeting to be held on Tuesday, September 14.”

Degner said that until the board can vote on a mask mandate, “we strongly encourage all students and staff to wear a mask to school tomorrow as we anticipate the District implementing a mask requirement for all individuals in school buildings.”

Des Moines Public Schools, the state’s largest school district and one of the districts named in the lawsuit, announced on Monday night it will institute a universal mask mandate for all its school starting on Wednesday.