DES MOINES — A federal judge on Monday ordered the state of Iowa to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Judge Robert Pratt said in an order signed Monday that the law passed in May substantially increases the risk of several children with health conditions of contracting COVID-19.
Pratt said he has looked at data on the effectiveness of masks to reduce spread of the virus and agrees with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics on mask wearing in schools.
"Because Plaintiffs have shown that Iowa Code section 280.31’s ban on mask mandates in schools substantially increases their risk of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19 and that due to their various medical conditions they are at an increased risk of severe illness or death, Plaintiffs have demonstrated that an irreparable harm exists," he wrote.
His order said Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo cannot enforce the new law banning local school districts from using their discretion to mandate masks for students, staff, teachers and visitors.
He issued a temporary restraining order to be in effect immediately. It remains in effect until the court issues an order for a preliminary injunction.
Eleven parents and The Arc of Iowa, a group that defends the civil rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, sued the state on Sept. 3.
The dispute is one of several playing out in school districts nationwide, where parents, school administrators and health officials are battling over enforcement of mask protocols. The U.S. Education Department has opened civil rights investigations in five Republican-led states, including Iowa, that have banned or limited mask requirements in schools.
Reynolds said in a statement that the judge “unilaterally overturned a state law, ignored the decision by our elected legislature and took away parents’ ability to decide what’s best for their child.”
She said the state will appeal and “exercise every legal option we have to uphold state law and defend the rights and liberties afforded to any American citizen protected by our constitution.”
Hours after the decision was announced, Des Moines public schools Superintendent Thomas Ahart said he would reinstate a mask mandate for all students, staff and visitors to the district's schools beginning Wednesday. Des Moines schools is the state's largest district with about 33,000 students.
A spokeswoman for the Iowa City school district said the school board will meet Tuesday to consider its options. A message was sent to district families from Superintendent Matt Degner that said “we strongly encourage all students and staff to wear a mask to school tomorrow as we anticipate the district implementing a mask requirement for all individuals in school buildings.”
Pratt pointed out that it's been almost 40 years since the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that, regardless of citizenship status, denying school-aged children a free public education violates the U.S. Constitution.
He said the parents “want Iowa school districts to have the opportunity to comply with federal law and ensure that each child receives an education in the least-restrictive and the most-integrated environment — without jeopardizing their lives or safety.”
“Iowa’s mask mandate ban makes it not only dangerous for disabled or immunocompromised children to attend school, but several pediatricians opine it is also dangerous for healthy siblings to attend school in person because they risk carrying the virus back to their disabled or immunocompromised siblings,” Pratt said.
He said the AAP has recorded about 3,500 new COVID-19 cases among Iowa school-aged children since July and some public schools in Iowa are experiencing COVID-19 infection rates at upwards of 60% of last year’s total for the entire school year.
In the most recent state public health update children aged 17 and younger made up 29% of the new coronavirus cases in Iowa. Fifteen children under age 17 were hospitalized with COVID-19, including 12 under the age of 11.
Lebo has said any districts that violate the law will be referred to the State Board of Education and risk loss of funding.
Pratt also points out that the motion by the parents to halt enforcement of the law comes on the heels of the U.S. Department of Education’s investigation into whether Iowa’s mask mandate ban violates the Americans With Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act by discriminating against school-aged children with disabilities.
The parents in the lawsuit claim similar violations of federal law. They claim that in-person learning is essential and point out that Lebo remarked in January 2021 that a return to in-person learning is necessary as “students engaged in remote learning are falling behind academically.”
The parents of these children “thus lament the choice of having to either send their children to school in person with the rest of the kids their age without a mask mandate or swallow the lesser option that is not always available to them—remote learning," Pratt said.
He concluded that the law seems to conflict with the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act “because it excludes disabled children from participating in and denies them the benefits of public schools’ programs, services, and activities to which they are entitled.”