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State attorneys ask appeals court to restore Iowa’s ban on school mask mandates

State attorneys hope to bring back enforcement of a law passed in May that stops schools from issuing universal mask mandates. That law was challenged by families of children with disabilities that make them more likely to face life-threatening complications from the coronavirus.
John Pemble
/
IPR file
State attorneys hope to bring back enforcement of a law passed in May that stops schools from issuing universal mask mandates. That law was challenged by families of children with disabilities that make them more likely to face life-threatening complications from the coronavirus.

Iowa’s ban on school mask mandates was back in court Thursday morning, this time in a federal appeals court where state attorneys argued that the panel of three judges should overturn an earlier ruling that blocked enforcement of the law.

That ruling dates back to September, when a federal judge in Iowa first issued a restraining order in response to a lawsuit from the ACLU, disability rights groups and families of students with disabilities.

Those families claimed the state law violates federal anti-discrimination laws because sending their children to school in person could put them at a greater risk of contracting the coronavirus and suffering severe medical complications.

In a hearing of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held in Omaha, Nebraska, Assistant Attorney General Sam Langholz told the panel that the restraining order, later confirmed by a preliminary injunction, goes too far.

“The allegation that federal disability law actually requires mask mandates, that is truly unprecedented,” Langholz said.

“Well, it could, right?,” Judge Duane Benton asked Langholz. “Surely it could?”

Langholz responded by pointing out that the law (HF 847) includes an exception so that schools can require masks to satisfy federal law, but only in narrowly defined cases such as in a particular classroom.

“Plaintiffs are asking for a ‘reasonable accommodation’ that requires action from all these third-party students, which is a policy choice that the state of Iowa has decided is not appropriate in its schools,” he said.

Benton later asked if it would be enough for the appeals court to amend the previous injunction to tell state officials they must honor exceptions for federal law.

“What about telling the state it says ‘any other provision of law,’ that includes federal law, and they’ve got to follow federal law?” Benton asked.

Elisabeth Theodore, an attorney for the families behind the lawsuit, replied that would not go far enough since the state argues universal masking is not a reasonable request.

“We know based on the government’s position in this case that they would then go out and tell school districts they’re going to lose their accreditation because they believe disability law does not apply here,” Theodore said.

A decision on the case will be released another day.

The appeals hearing for Iowa’s law comes as school mandate bans in other states also make their way through federal courts, with mixed results. An appeals court upheld Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order barring school-issued mandates. However, a different panel of federal judges upheld an order blocking a law in South Carolina that is similar to Iowa’s.

The CDC continues to recommend universal masking in schools, regardless of vaccine status, and the American Academy of Pediatrics filed a brief in support of the ACLU lawsuit.

After Iowa’s law was blocked, more than two-dozen school districts put some kind of mask requirement in place. That includes many of the state’s largest districts in Des Moines, Davenport and Iowa City although it also means the vast majority of districts have chosen to keep masks optional.

The requirements also took different shapes with some districts including all grades, and others in places such as Marshalltown, Muscatine and Decorah limiting their requirements to Kindergarten through 6th Grade.

When the ruling was first issued, vaccines were not available for children 5-12 years-old as they are now. Attorneys challenging Iowa’s law argued in briefs that their case still stands. Schools may take vaccine rates or infection rates into account when considering for or against a mask mandate, they said, but they must still be able to require masks in order to protect students with disabilities.

The change in vaccine status will affect the decisions some districts have made, aside from the court’s ruling. When Linn-Mar first approved a mandate, the school board set out that it would end 60 days after younger students are eligible to be vaccinated. The district has announced masks will no longer be required in school buildings when students return from winter break in January.