Iowa will not enforce school mask mandate ban for now, Attorney General's Office says

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The families and disability rights advocates who sued to allow their school districts to require masks can continue pursuing their suit, a federal appellate court ruled Tuesday, but an order allowing all schools to put in place masking rules has been struck down.

Tuesday's decision holds that the lower court's injunction was overbroad in blocking enforcement of a state law blocking school districts from requiring masks. But the judges also held that requiring masks is a reasonable accommodation schools can make to protect students with disabilities under federal law, and that school boards can put such orders in place.

A lower court must reissue a narrower injunction as the case moves through the courts. In a statement, the Iowa Attorney General's Office said it intends to appeal the ruling, and noted the current injunction will remain in place for the time being.

"The district court’s injunction of the Iowa statute remains in place statewide — and the State will still not be enforcing the statute — until the case returns to the district court," spokesman Lynn Hicks said. "That will likely not happen for at least 21 days, which gives time for the State to seek rehearing of the appeal by the entire Eighth Circuit."

A group of parents and the advocacy group Arc of Iowa sued the state and Gov. Reynolds in September, seeking to block a law Reynolds signed in May forbidding local government mask mandates. The law has been inactive since October due to a preliminary injunction from a federal judge.

The ACLU of Iowa, which represents the plaintiffs challenging the law, called the decision a victory for students with disabilities.

"The court ruled that Iowa’s law allows mandatory masking as a reasonable accommodation when necessary to accommodate students with disabilities, and that masking is a reasonable accommodation that students are entitled to under federal disability law," ACLU legal director Rita Bettis Austen said in a statement.

Gov. Kim Reynolds' office did not have any immediate statement.

Alan Ostergren, a prominent conservative Iowa attorney not affiliated with the case, also described the decision as a victory Tuesday on Twitter, calling it a "big win for the right of the legislature to set education policy for the state."

The "governor can enforce mask mandate ban 'against schools that encounter no one with disabilities that require masks as a reasonable accommodation.," he wrote.

In appealing the district court's October injunction, the state argued the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring their case under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act.

In Tuesday's decision, the three-judge panel ruled that the parents had demonstrated a substantial risk of bodily harm to their children which would be prevented by enjoining the law. It noted that 24 Iowa school districts had reinstated their mandates after the law was blocked, and found the families were indeed entitled to a preliminary injunction to block the law.

Previously: Parents of students with disabilities sue over Iowa's COVID mask mandate ban in schools

But the court ruled the statewide sweep of that injunction was broader than necessary to address the plaintiff's needs.

"Plaintiffs are not harmed by the absence of mask requirements at schools their children do not attend," the court reasoned. "Further, to the extent that some schools in Iowa do not encounter anyone whose disabilities require the schools to make others wear masks, [the anti-mandate law] may prohibit those schools from imposing mask requirements without violating federal disability law."

The case will now go back to the district court with orders to issue a revised injunction blocking the law only to the schools and districts attended by the plaintiffs' children, but also blocking the state from enforcing the law in cases where masks are required to accommodate disabilities.

In permitting a more limited injunction, the appellate court found that plaintiffs "are likely to prevail on the merits of their [Rehabilitation Act] claim."

"Defendants’ enforcement of [the anti-mandate law] has prevented schools, including those attended by Plaintiffs’ children, from providing accommodations required by federal law," Judge Duane Benton wrote.

Benton was joined in his decision by Judge Jane Kelly. The third judge, Ralph Erickson, wrote in dissent that the plaintiffs had failed to exhaust other administrative remedies under federal disability law before filing their suit, and as such, no injunction was warranted. He also warned the court was too quick to find mask mandates are "reasonable accommodations" required by federal law.

"This case is about children’s ability to receive instruction while attending school," Erickson wrote. "Courts should not act so quickly to intervene in the resolution of conflicts which arise in the daily operation of school systems."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Iowa's mask mandate ban would be fully reinstated as a result of a federal court ruling issued Tuesday. According to the ruling, a mask requirement is a reasonable accommodation schools can enforce in order to protect students with disabilities under federal law, and districts can put such rules in place.

William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted at wrmorris2@registermedia.com, 715-573-8166 or on Twitter at @DMRMorris.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Court decision adds confusion to Iowa's school mask mandate ban