An Iowa law banning mask mandates in schools was blocked by a temporary restraining order from a federal judge on Monday, Sept. 13.
House File 847, signed into law by Governor Kim Reynolds on May 20, said in part that the superintendent or leader of a school or district, “shall not adopt, enforce, or implement a policy that requires its employees, students or members of the public to wear a facial covering for any purpose while on the school district’s or accredited nonpublic school’s property.”
The law was met with controversy, as some argued that this negatively affected students with disabilities who may be immunocompromised and more likely to get COVID-19 in a mask-free school.
“The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act require that students with disabilities have equal access to education,” said Veronica Lorson Fowler, communications director for the ACLU of Iowa. “And so obviously, if a school is forbidden from issuing a mask mandate, that is not giving equal access to education, because it’s putting parents in a position of choosing between their students health and in some cases their lives, and their education.”
The effectiveness of masks has been proven time and time again. According to research published by the National Institute of Health, “N95 masks, medical masks and home‐made masks can block 99.98%, 97.14% and 95.15% of virus in aerosols.”
This argument was the basis of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Iowa and Arc of Iowa, a disability advocate group, claiming violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504 says, “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States…shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance…”
The mask mandate ban, according to the lawsuit plaintiffs, directly violated this by creating a more dangerous school environment for students with disabilities, which could limit access to equal educational opportunities for those students.
“Some districts don’t even offer at-home options,” Fowler said. “But even if parents did take advantage of that, that is obviously not an equal educational opportunity as being in the classroom and being with our students.”
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt agreed that the mask mandate ban violated parts of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act.
“If the drastic increase in the number of pediatric COVID-19 cases since the start of the school year in Iowa is any indication of what is to come, such an extreme remedy is necessary to ensure that the children involved in this case are not irreparably harmed,” Pratt wrote in his decision.
Governor Kim Reynolds’ office issued a statement after the court’s decision promising to fight it.
“Today, a federal 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,” the statement read. “We 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.”
When contacted for an interview, the governor’s office declined to elaborate and instead referred back to their original statement above.
However, Fowler said that the ACLU is prepared to return to court if the governor’s office chooses to appeal the decision.
“That’s their call to make,” Fowler said. “But we are very committed to this.”
Despite pushback from Reynolds, the judge recently extended the temporary restraining order by two weeks. An Oct. 11 date has been set for a ruling on a preliminary injunction.
Following the original decision regarding the temporary restraining order, several Iowa school districts reinstated their mask mandates, including the Des Moines Public School District and West Des Moines Community Schools.
“I think it’s ridiculous that we even have to have this argument. People have to wear pants for hygiene reasons and nobody complains about that,” said Melanie Kies, a resident raising three grandchildren in the Des Moines Public School District. “I can’t believe there needs to be discussion or debate about such a simple principle of public health in what is supposed to be one of the most advanced, civilized societies in the world.”
For Kies, the mask mandate issue is a basic piece of health guidance that has taken on an unnecessarily political front.
“Germ theory is proven science and we’ve known for certain how to stop the spread of disease for 150 years,” Kies said. “How this became politicized and how so many people have been brainwashed into not following simple, sound, guidance that basically echoes what they learned in primary school just goes to show that we as a country are not nearly as smart or civilized as we have been pretending to be.”
However, not all parents and guardians with children in public schools agree that mask mandates are the best course of action, and some have taken to Board of Education meetings to express their disagreement.
“Don’t force that on us,” said West Des Moines Community School District parent Tasha Schwingendorf during public remarks at the Sept. 13 Board of Education meeting. “Don’t make this a communist area, that we are told what we can do, when we can do and how we can do it. Please let there still be some freedom in this country.”