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How should schools respond to the latest ruling on Iowa’s mask mandate ban?

Several school districts immediately ended mask requirements following Tuesday's decision from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Several school districts have ended mask requirements for students and staff following a federal appeals court ruling on Iowa’s ban on school mask mandates. But attorneys involved in the lawsuit say those districts are misreading the opinion, and that it strengthens protections for students with disabilities.

In September, a federal district judge blocked Iowa’s law prohibiting schools from issuing mask mandates after the ACLU and disability rights groups argued it forces students with disabilities and serious health conditions to choose between school and their health.

The children of the 11 families that are behind the court challenge have asthma, epilepsy, sickle cell anemia, chronic heart conditions and chronic lung infections which put them at danger of severe illness if they are infected with COVID-19.

This week, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the lawsuit should go forward. Judge Duane Benton wrote in the decision that the lower court was right to issue an injunction against the state.

“Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits because mask requirements constitute a reasonable modification and schools’ failure to provide this accommodation likely violates the Rehabilitation Act,” the ruling said.

State attorneys had argued that masking cannot be required in schools under federal disability laws. The Eighth Circuit disagreed and said that state officials cannot restrict schools’ ability to require masks in order to meet the needs of disabled students.

The ruling also said that the injunction was too broad and that the state law could be enforced in schools that have no children with disabilities that would require masks.

There have been conflicting interpretations of the ruling, with some school districts claiming they cannot go on with universal mask requirements. Ames Community School District announced Tuesday that masks would no longer be required in school buildings but would be strongly encouraged. They continue to be required on buses.

The Urbandale and Burlington school districts also ended their mask requirements Tuesday. So did Davenport, one of the 10 districts named in the lawsuit.

A spokesperson for Urbandale schools said the change was made in response to the Eighth Circuit opinion and that any decisions to accommodate individual students would be made by the teams reviewing their individualized education plans, or IEPs.

The West Des Moines school board decided earlier this month to extend a mask requirement during school hours in response to high rates of coronavirus infections in Polk County. However, in response to the federal court ruling, the district made masks optional.

Sioux City Community Schools reversed a decision this week to allow the superintendent to require masks in individual buildings when COVID-19 numbers are high. Instead masks will be optional.

The districts’ decisions may be based, in part, on a statement in the ruling that appears to clear the way for the state to enforce the mandate ban for districts not directly involved the lawsuit.

But ACLU of Iowa legal director Rita Bettis Austen said it’s federal law that comes first in the ruling.

“The Court has ruled that the federal Rehabilitation Act requires schools to impose universal masking as a reasonable accommodation for students with disabilities that make them more vulnerable to severe illness or death from COVID-19,” Bettis Austen said.

According to the ACLU, that means all schools — whether they are part of the lawsuit or not — must require masks to an extent that allows children with disabilities to go to school safely.

After ending its mask requirements on Wednesday, the Cedar Rapids Community School District may reconsider according to The Gazette.

Drake University law professor Denise Hill said school districts are trying to decide how far they must go to meet federal law without running afoul of the state.

“I think it's left to at this point to the legal counsel of each individual school district to determine what level of risk they want to take in terms of the school facing consequences from the state enforcing the current ban on mask mandates,” Hill said, adding that the districts also face liability for doing too little to protect high-risk students.

Hill said a parent who believes masking should be required because of their child’s health risks should raise the issue with their district.

“If there is a school district that presently does not have any requests for accommodation, it could be argued that the state would be able to enforce the law," Hill said.

The Iowa Attorney General’s office said in a statement Tuesday that the state will challenge the decision by the Eighth Circuit and that any enforcement of the law is on hold.

“The decision doesn’t take effect immediately. The district court’s injunction of the Iowa statute remains in place statewide — and the State will still not be enforcing the statute — until the case returns to the district court,” the statement said, adding that the case will likely not return to federal district court for “at least 21 days.”

The Iowa City Community School District and Des Moines Public Schools appear to be the only two districts involved in the lawsuit that will continue universal mask requirements for all students and staff members.

“While we hope to see a decline in the number of Omicron cases soon, ending a mask mandate at this time means more students, teachers and staff will contract COVID-19; students with disabilities would be placed at a greater risk; and the likelihood that schools may temporarily close or services such as school bus transportation be interrupted would increase,” DMPS Supt. Thomas Ahart said in a statement to families.

Ahart said the district’s mandate will stay in place while school officials watch to see what changes are made when the case returns to federal district court.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa