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Court: Iowa can ban mask mandates in schools

2 of 3 judges on panel say transmission rates have lowered

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DES MOINES — A new state law that prohibits Iowa schools from requiring all students or staff to wear face masks can go into effect after a federal appeals court on Monday lifted a temporary injunction.

Two of the judges on a three-member federal appeals court lifted the injunction because they said it is no longer relevant, given the significant reduction in COVID-19 transmission in Iowa since the challenge was filed in fall 2021.

The Iowa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said despite the new state law going into effect, Monday’s federal appeals court ruling allows for the possibility of further litigation.

In May 2021, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law the legislation that prohibits Iowa districts from requiring students and staff to wear face masks while at school.

The practice was common during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic as a means of reducing the virus’ spread, and was recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many Iowa school districts had face mask requirements they were forced to end when the bill was signed.

In September 2021, 11 Iowa families sued the state and the 10 school districts their children attended, saying the state law prohibiting mask requirements violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by placing their children’s health in danger.

That same month, a federal judge temporarily blocked the law from going into effect, allowing the lawsuit to proceed.

Monday’s ruling lifted that injunction.

“The issues surrounding the preliminary injunction are moot because the current conditions differ vastly from those prevailing when the District Court addressed it,” reads the circuit court’s ruling, which was signed by Judges Duane Benton and Ralph Erickson. “COVID-19 vaccines are now available to children and adolescents over the age of four, greatly decreasing Plaintiffs’ children’s risk of serious bodily injury or death from contracting COVID-19 at school.”

Currently in Iowa, 17 counties are experiencing “high” transmission of COVID-19, while 33 more have “substantial” transmission, according to CDC data.

In September of 2021, 98 of Iowa’s 99 counties featured “high” transmission and the other county was in “substantial” transmission.

In the federal report from September of 2021, 98 of Iowa’s 99 counties featured “high transmission” of COVID-19, and the other county was in “substantial transmission.”

Judge Jane Kelly dissented with the other appeals court judges’ ruling, writing that the reduction in COVID-19 transmission does not completely eliminate the risk posed to the plaintiffs’ children, who have special needs or health issues.

“We cannot simply assume that the changes in the pandemic in the months since the parties compiled the record are sufficient to constitute changed circumstances,” Kelly wrote. “Vaccine availability, case rates, and CDC guidance alone do not reflect individual risk, particularly where the record shows Plaintiffs’ children have conditions that increase their risk of serious illness from COVID-19 and contains no information regarding whether vaccines would be effective for them.”

The federal appeals court ruling allows the new state law to go into effect, essentially banning schools from enacting sweeping face mask requirements. But the ruling also states it does not apply to federal laws.

“If another state or federal law requires masks, (the new state law banning universal mask requirements) does not conflict with that law — and thus should not be completely enjoined,” the ruling states.

The ACLU highlighted Kelly’s dissent, which noted that parents of students with disabilities still have the right to ask schools to provide “reasonable accommodations,” which could include some sort of face mask requirement, in order to keep that student safe.

Iowa schools can still require and Iowa parents can still request face mask requirements as a reasonable accommodation for students with disabilities, the ACLU said.

“(Monday’s) decision vacates the district court’s previous injunction as moot because of changed circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision also makes it clear that the federal ADA and Rehabilitation Act require that students with disabilities may need to be accommodated, under appropriate circumstances, by requiring masks in schools,” ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen said in a statement. “This is the right decision, and a victory for the plaintiffs and disability rights.”

The school districts targeted by the lawsuit were Council Bluffs, Ankeny, Davenport, Decorah, Denver, Des Moines, Iowa City, Johnston, Linn-Mar and Waterloo.

An Iowa State Education Association spokesperson said the state’s largest teachers union is not aware of any districts in the state having mask mandates still in place.

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