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Mask mandates in Iowa schools can remain after judge approves preliminary injunction

Students arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Hillsborough County, Fla., on Aug. 10. After thousands of students were put in isolation or quarantine, the district is revisiting its safety protocols, including its current mask-optional policy.
Chris O'Meara/AP
Students arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Hillsborough County, Fla., on Aug. 10.

Iowa school districts can keep their mask mandates in place after a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit brought by parents and disability rights advocates.

Judge Robert Pratt had already temporarily blocked the state law that prohibits Iowa schools from mandating masks. Pratt’s ruling released Friday will halt enforcement of the law for the duration of the legal challenge.

The legislation, which Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law in the middle of the night and which went into effect immediately, sparked outrage from public health experts and concerned parents.

The ACLU, Disability Rights Iowa and the Arc of Iowa filed the lawsuit on behalf of a group of 11 parents of students with disabilities, who argue the state law passed in May violates their children’s rights to an equal education.

Lawyers for the coalition have said the law forces parents to choose between remote learning, which they see as inferior and unequal, or sending their vulnerable students into a setting that puts their health at risk. They argue the mask mandate ban is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and are seeking to have the law permanently blocked.

In his ruling Friday, Pratt said the “extraordinary” step of halting enforcement of the law was needed in order to protect children from “irreparable harm."

“[G]iven 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 Iowa Code section 280.31 is not enjoined, and the important public interests at stake, such an extreme remedy is necessary,” Pratt wrote.

Pratt cited the explosive growth of pediatric COVID-19 cases in his ruling and pointed to guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommend “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status."

Pratt noted that within days of him approving a temporary hold on the law in September, some two dozen school districts across the state had implemented their own mask mandates, using their own discretion to “act in the best interests of public health."

“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,” Pratt wrote. “Many schools with universal masking policies permit exemptions for medical reasons and some even provide for religious exemptions.”

The president of the state’s teachers union, the Iowa State Education Association, applauded the ruling, which he says restores local control to school officials.

“We are pleased the courts continue to recognize the importance of local control allowing local school districts to make important decisions about the health and safety of their students, employees and school communities,” president Mike Beranek said in a written statement.

In response to the ruling Friday, Reynolds immediately appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

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

Meanwhile, Iowa remains under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education over whether its mask mandate ban violates federal anti-discrimination laws.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter