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Parents File Federal Lawsuit Against Iowa’s Ban On Mask Mandates In Schools

Heather Preston (left) is one of the parents in a lawsuit attempting to block Iowa’s ban on school mask mandates. She says her children are too young to be vaccinated but have chronic conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Courtesy of the ACLU of Iowa
Heather Preston (left) is one of the parents in a lawsuit attempting to block Iowa’s ban on school mask mandates. She says her children are too young to be vaccinated but have chronic conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.

The ACLU and disability rights groups are working with 11 Iowa parents in a lawsuit aimed at overturning a statewide ban on school mask mandates.

A new federal lawsuit seeks to overturn a state law passed in May (HF 847) that includes a provision barring Iowa schools from requiring masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU, Disability Rights Iowa and the Arc of Iowa on behalf of a group of 11 parents of students with disabilities who say allowing districts to require masks would allow their children to go to school in-person safely. It argues that prohibiting schools from requiring masks violates their children’s rights to an equal education.

ACLU attorney Susan Mizner said the state law forces parents of disabled children to either choose inferior online classes or risk sending vulnerable students into schools that cannot demand universal masking as the CDC recommends.

“Federal disability rights laws do not allow state and local entities to exclude students with disabilities, to offer them lesser services or programs, or to fail to provide reasonable modifications in order to give them access to their education,” Mizner said.

The lawsuit names Gov. Kim Reynolds as well as school districts across the state including Council Bluffs, Davenport, Decorah, Iowa City, Ankeny and Des Moines Public Schools.

It is the second lawsuit aimed at blocking Iowa’s mask mandate ban. A parent from Council Bluffs filed a court challenge in Polk County court last week.

The U.S. Department of Education is also investigating whether laws in Iowa and four other states violate federal anti-discrimination laws.

The students represented in the case have the right to learn in-person, Mizner said, and to ask classmates to wear masks as the CDC recommends.

“If the student needs the school to do something that’s reasonable, and following public health guidelines is pretty reasonable, they must do that in order to allow the students with disabilities access to their education,” she said.

Heather Preston of Des Moines, one of the parents in the lawsuit, has two children in middle school. One of them has chronic lung conditions and a heart defect due to a rare syndrome that causes organs to form abnormally. The other is diagnosed with hypertension. Neither is old enough to be vaccinated.

“It’s terrifying for a parent to have to worry every day about the physical safety of their child, and to have to choose between their child keeping up with their education and their child becoming seriously ill or perhaps even dying,” Preston said.

Other students identified in the lawsuit have conditions such as asthma, epilepsy, chronic respiratory infections and heart disease which make the coronavirus a severe health threat.

At a press conference Thursday, Reynolds was asked what parents should do if their child is medically vulnerable. She said families should consider keeping students at home to learn online if going to school in-person is too much of a risk.

“We have to remember that it’s their right to wear a mask. They can make sure than they have an N95, they can use a face shield,” Reynolds said. “But, again, it’s the law in Iowa. I believe parents can visit with their doctors and then they will make an informed decision about what’s the best thing for their child.”

Mizner said virtual learning may be safer for students with disabilities but they often lag behind in online classes without direct interaction with teachers.

“It’s also segregating the students form their peers,” Mizner said. “You cannot say for students with disabilities we’re going to put you over here and the rest of the students can be integrated with the rest of the community.”

Attorneys involved in the case said they will ask a judge to grant an injunction blocking the law as the lawsuit goes forward.