The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa is calling on several school districts that have dropped their mask mandates — including those in the Des Moines metro area — to immediately reinstate them, or potentially face lawsuits to get them to comply with federal law.
The ACLU of Iowa announced Friday that it has sent eight of the 10 school districts involved in a federal lawsuit against the state’s ban on mask mandates letters “advising schools that they are in violation of the 25 January from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.”
In that Jan. 25 ruling, the court ruled that the previous statewide injunction against Iowa’s law banning schools from having mask mandates was too broad. However, even if the injunction were to be more narrowly tailored to the schools and districts attended by the children of the plaintiffs — the disability rights group Arc of Iowa and a group of parents of students with disabilities — the court also found ruled that the state ban could not be enforced where masks are required to accommodate students with disabilities.
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The state ban on mask mandates by schools, cities and counties was signed into law in May. The lawsuit against Gov. Kim Reynolds, the Iowa Department of Education, and the 10 school districts was filed in September, arguing the masks are necessary to accommodate children at higher risk for COVID-19 under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
Of the 10 districts that are party to the lawsuit — Ankeny, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Decorah, Denver, Des Moines, Iowa City, Johnston, Linn-Mar and Waterloo — Des Moines and Iowa City retained their mask mandates after Jan. 1 . 25 decision, so the ACLU of Iowa did not send those two letters to districts on Friday, according to the organization’s press release.
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Letters the ACLU of Iowa sent to schools’ legal counsel ask schools to respond within a week, and if they don’t, plaintiffs “will consider other actions, including litigation, to ensure that your obligations under federal civil rights laws are met.”
For now, Rita Bettis Austen — legal director for the ACLU of Iowa — told a news conference that the organization is reaching out in good faith, and Bettis Austen would not elaborate on any legal strategy regarding the eight districts.
Why Iowa school districts dropped their mask mandates
School districts in Iowa have relaxed their mask mandates for various reasons since November.
Ankeny, Decorah, Johnston and Linn-Mar had partially or fully terminated their mask mandates prior to the court ruling.
Ankeny and Johnston gave up their terms after controversial school board elections.
Council Bluffs dropped its mandate this week but cited a downward trend in COVID-19 cases and not the court’s decision to do so, according to local newspaper The Daily Nonpareil.
Davenport and Waterloo have lifted their mask mandates due to the Jan. 25 court ruling, according to local media and district announcements.
The letters sent to Ankeny and Johnston specifically note elementary and middle school students in the districts who live with congenital neurological disorders or moderate to severe asthma. The children’s doctors have advised their parents that they should be surrounded by masked pupils and staff at their schools to be less likely to catch COVID-19, the letters say.
The ACLU of Iowa asks in the letters that mask mandates be reinstated at specific schools attended by students, but also “to begin the process of requiring masks in schools throughout the district” because the organization finds it hard to imagine other schools don’t have other students with disabilities who put them at higher risk for COVID-19.
According to the ACLU of Iowa, having information about these disabilities on file is sufficient notice to consider masking as a reasonable accommodation to protect students’ equal access to education under of federal law.
Spokespersons for Ankeny and Johnston said their districts would not comment immediately or would have to wait for their attorneys to process the information.
ACLU wants all schools in Iowa to have masking policies to comply with federal law
Other Iowa districts that had mask mandates but were not parties to the lawsuit also dropped their mandates after the Jan. 25 ruling, including Ames, Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Urbandale and West Des Moines.
“These schools ignore the fact that the court also said that Iowa’s law prohibiting mask requirements includes an exception for schools to require masks when needed to comply with federal human rights laws. disabilities,” Bettis Austen said in Friday’s press release.
“We hope they change course. If they don’t, all options are on the table for us,” Bettis Austen said.
The Iowa Attorney General’s Office announced its intention to appeal the court’s Jan. 25 ruling, but said the current injunction against state law would remain in place for the time being and that the The state would not resume enforcing its warrant ban until the case returns to district court, which officials do not expect until at least Feb. 15.
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Bettis Austen said the governor’s choice to end state emergency declarations put in place at the start of the pandemic “has no impact on the obligations of Iowa schools to protect students who have those disabilities that make them vulnerable to severe COVID illnesses.”
Bettis Austen said that in the future, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may no longer say in its guidelines that schools should use masks to protect people, “but they do now, and the proclamation of the Governor doesn’t change that.”
The CDC continues to recommend that all students ages 2 and older, staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools wear masks indoors, regardless of their immunization status.
Learn more about the pandemic in Iowa:
Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be contacted by email at [email protected] He’s on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.