Iowa schools will be able to keep mask mandates, as judge issues preliminary injunction

A line of school buses awaits the start of the 2021-22 school year near Tiffin Elementary School, Aug. 13, 2021. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

“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,” U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt wrote in his decision on Friday. Pratt issued a preliminary injunction against the state enforcing the ban on school districts requiring masks be worn by students and staff Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law in May.

Pratt had previously issued a temporary restraining order preventing the state from enforcing the school mask mandate ban, but temporary restraining orders are, as the name states, temporary. The order, which Pratt extended on Sept. 27, was set to expire on Monday. The preliminary injunction will remain in place as long as a lawsuit seeking to overturn the mask mandate ban is before the courts, unless a higher court vacates it.

The lawsuit against the school mask mandate ban — which was contained in a bill passed on the final day of this year’s regular session of the Iowa Legislature with only Republican votes — was filed by 11 Iowa families with school-age children who have medical conditions making them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. The families said the ban puts their children at a heightened risk of serious illness or death because maskless schools increase the chances of them contracting the virus.

The families and their attorneys, who include the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Iowa, argued the school mask mandate ban violates provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act that guarantee the rights of students with disabilities to receive an education equal to other students in a safe environment.

In his Sept. 13 decision that first imposed the temporary restraining order, Pratt concluded the plaintiffs were likely to win their case when it comes to trial. The judge conceded that issuing the order was an “extreme remedy” but said that given the rate of virus spread in Iowa “such an extreme remedy is necessary to ensure that the children involved in this case are not irreparably harmed.”

Attorneys representing Reynolds and Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo presented basically the same set of arguments against the preliminary injunction they did against the temporary restraining order, claiming that allowing each school district to make its own decision about masks would create “uncertainty and confusion,” and creating and enforcing mask mandates would be an “undue burden” on schools. Once again, the judge found them unconvincing.

“Defendants have failed to present any evidence that enjoining their enforcement of [the school mask mandate ban] has caused any confusion,” Pratt wrote. He also concluded — for the third time — that mask mandates “are no great burden for school districts,” pointing out that school districts could and did have such mandates in place before Reynolds signed the law banning them in May.

In the conclusion to his 27-page order, Pratt wrote, “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 state’s lawyers lost on every point of their argument. The judge even rejected their request to make the plaintiffs post a bond to cover the state’s legal fees in case they lose.

Reynolds’ office wasted no time in issuing a statement condemning Pratt’s decision, and announcing it was filing an appeal with the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking to have the preliminary injunction overturned.

“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,” Reynolds said in the written statement. “We will defend the rights and liberties afforded to all American citizens protected by our constitution.”

The governor is scheduled to appear alongside former President Donald Trump in a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on Saturday night. It has not been announced whether she will address her desire to ban school mask mandates during her speech at the rally.

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