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Federal Civil Rights Investigation Of Iowa's Ban On School Mask Mandates Begins

school hallway
The U.S. Department of Education opened investigations into Iowa and four other Republican-led states Monday for banning mask mandates in schools.

The U.S. Department of Education opened investigations into Iowa and four other Republican-led states Monday for banning mask mandates in schools, citing concerns that such policies may violate the civil rights of students with disabilities.

The U.S. DOE’s Office for Civil Rights sent a letter to Iowa Education Director Ann Lebo on Monday.

“OCR’s investigation will focus on whether, in light of this policy, students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to in-person education, in violation of Federal law,” the letter reads.

The letter points to recent increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations of children nationwide.

“National data also show that children with some underlying medical conditions, including those with certain disabilities, are at higher risk than other children for experiencing severe illness from COVID-19,” the letter reads.

The letter mentions the CDC’s recommendation for everyone to wear a mask at school, and refers to scientific evidencesupporting universal masking as a way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

A spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Education said officials “are reviewing the language” of the letter.

In a statement, Gov. Kim Reynolds accused President Joe Biden, a Democrat, of picking a political fight “to distract from his own failures.”

“As I’ve said all along, I believe and trust in Iowans to make the best health decisions for themselves and their families,” Reynolds said. “Iowa’s democratically elected legislature endorsed that view as well when they passed a law to support a parent’s right to decide what’s best for their own children. In Iowa, we will continue to support individual liberty over government mandates.”

Reynolds also said Iowa reopened schools “safely and responsibly” more than a year ago. Unlike the beginning of last school year, key strategies for slowing the spread of COVID-19 are now prohibited by state law.

Last year, many schools in Iowa required students and staff to wear masks and to quarantine if exposed to COVID-19. Schools could switch to virtual learning if the surrounding area reached a certain test positivity rate. Reynolds also changed quarantine policies last fall and said she hoped it would be a “great incentive” for more schools to require masks. She repeatedly encouraged Iowans to wear masks before issuing a limited mask mandate in November.

In May of this year, Reynolds signed the law banning school mask requirements in the middle of the nightafter the legislation was introduced and passed in less than 24 hours on the final day of the legislative session. In January of this year, Reynolds signed a law requiring all schools to provide the option of 100 percent in-person learning, leading schools to end their hybrid options that allowed for more social distancing.

Iowa does not have, and has never had, a statewide strategy for coronavirus testing in schools. Reynolds rejected $95 million offered by the federal government to boost coronavirus testing in schools. The state does not provide data to the public related to coronavirus infections in schools.

Reynolds has said she will continue to encourage Iowans to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Vaccines are not yet approved for kids under the age of 12.

Julie Russell-Steuart, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party’s Disability Caucus, welcomed the investigation and called on Reynolds to protect children with medical conditions and Iowans living with a disability.

“Democrats want safe schools where our children, educators, and support staff can thrive without fear of getting or spreading a deadly virus,” Russell-Steuart said in a statement. “We have the science and the data to understand how to lessen the risks, and we need to be able to use those tools.”

The state is also facing a lawsuit from a Council Bluffs parent who is asking a judge to block the mask mandate ban and allow Iowa schools to require masks.

The state releases coronavirus infection and hospitalization data once a week. As of last Wednesday night, COVID-19 hospitalizations had increased to a level not seen since January.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter