Judge who blocked Iowa’s school-mask ban went too far, 8th Circ says

Students leave
REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
  • State law 'likely' violates rights of children with disabilities, panel affirms
  • Scales back injunction to cover only school districts named in suit

Feb 1 - Advocates and parents of disabled children can block the state of Iowa from banning mask mandates in public schools to limit the spread of Covid-19 – but, for now, only in the 10 school districts the plaintiffs are actually suing, a federal appeals court held Tuesday.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated part of a lower-court ruling for the parents and The Arc of Iowa, represented by attorneys at ACLU of Iowa, Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, the Duff Law Firm, and others.

In a split decision, the majority affirmed that Iowa’s mask-mandate ban “likely” violates the children’s rights under two federal disability-rights laws, but said the judge imposed an “overbroad” remedy by temporarily blocking enforcement in more than 300 school districts where no violations have yet been alleged.

The case involves “a discrete group of students: those whose disabilities require accommodations in the form of mask requirements in order to safely be present in their schools,” so the preliminary injunction “is necessary only as applied to their schools and districts,” Circuit Judge Duane Benton wrote, joined by Circuit Judge Jane Kelly.

Circuit Judge Ralph Erickson dissented, saying the lawsuit itself was “premature” and that the plaintiffs should have first filed an administrative complaint with the Iowa Department of Education.

Attorneys for the state and the 10 named school districts did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

Lawyers for the children issued a joint statement, warning that the scaled-back preliminary injunction does not mean that other school districts in Iowa can’t require masks.

The court’s reasoning makes it clear that “even schools that are not named in the lawsuit should be requiring masks when needed to accommodate students with disabilities so they can go to school with their peers,” said ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen.

The suit now returns to federal court in Southern Iowa, where Arc and the parents filed it last September. They claim Iowa’s ban on school-mask mandates violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, which applies to institutions receiving substantial federal funds.

About 10 states adopted similar bans, but most have been blocked or narrowed through litigation. However, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals restored Texas’ ban on school-mask mandates in November, and a state court judge in Florida said a lawsuit there was premature because the plaintiffs had not exhausted their administrative remedies.

The Iowa case is The Arc of Iowa et al. v. Kimberly Reynolds, In her official capacity as Governor of Iowa, et al., 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-3268.

For The Arc of Iowa et al.: John Arak Freedman and Elisabeth Theodore of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer; Jim Duff and Thomas Duff of Duff Law Firm; Rita Bettis Austen and Leah Patton, ACLU of Iowa Foundation; Susan Mizner, ACLU Disability Rights Program; Catherine Johnson and Cynthia Miller, Disability Rights Iowa; Shira Wakschlag, The Arc of the United States

For Reynolds et al: Samuel Langholz and Jeffrey Thompson, Office of the Attorney General of Iowa

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