ACLU says schools with immunocompromised students are required to enforce mask mandates

Published: Jan. 25, 2022 at 11:46 AM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - The ACLU of Iowa has clarified understanding of a federal court ruling to mean that Iowa schools will continue to be allowed to enforce mask mandates. Tuesday’s ruling from the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals means not only can schools require masks, but they may be violating federal law if they don’t.

“Every single school in Iowa has to follow that federal disability law protection for these kids,” said Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU Legal Director.

Earlier reporting stated a federal court ruling struck down an injunction blocking the state from enforcing a ban on mask mandates in schools. Gov. Kim Reynolds signed that law banning mask mandates in schools in May 2021.

While the court did strike down that injunction, lawyers with the ACLU point out the ruling also found mask mandates are a reasonable accommodation to protect students with disabilities to allow them to attend school, and banning those mandates would violate federal law. It remanded the injunction back to a district court to bar Governor Reynolds and the state “from enforcing the law against ANY school in a way that prevents schools from requiring masking to accommodate children with disabilities.”

Initial reporting from multiple media outlets, including KCRG, initially stated the appeals court reinstated Iowa’s ban on mask mandates based on its order striking down the injunction.

“I don’t think that the Eighth Circuit intended to confuse anyone. I just think, you know, it’s almost a 30-page decision,” said Sara Riley, an attorney with Tom Riley Law.

The broader ruling declared a ban on mask mandates would violate federal law barring discrimination on the basis of disability in any federal program, known as the Rehabilitation Act.

“Under the first factor, 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 federal appeals court ruling states.

“We are prepared to enforce the decision to protect students with disabilities across the state,” ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen wrote in a statement.

A group of parents of children with disabilities and two other organizations sued the state in September 2021 to block enforcement of the law. Gov. Kim Reynolds and Director of Education Ann Lebo were named in the lawsuit. It argued the law violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act

“Here’s the thing. I think that a school that has a student that would be adversely affected by not having a mask mandate, does run the risk of having that family, sue them,” said Riley.

District court granted a temporary restraining order against the law on Sept. 13, 2021 and a preliminary injunction on October 8, 2021. As many as 24 school districts then reimposed some form of mask mandate.

Gov. Reynolds appealed the ruling, arguing the plaintiffs lacked standing, failed to exhaust administrative remedies and the district court abused its discretion.

Cedar Rapids Community School district says it will not change its decision to remove its mask policy Wednesday. CRCSD says it focused on the injunction portion of the ruling and believes it does not apply to the district as they are not a part of the original lawsuit.

ACLU representatives, as well as Sara Riley, say this ruling applies to all Iowa schools.

Editor’s Note: A previous article incorrectly stated the federal appeals court ruling would reinstate the mask mandate ban for districts not named in the lawsuit. In fact, the ruling states not allowing districts to enforce mask mandates would violate federal law.

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