Parents of students with disabilities sue over Iowa's COVID mask mandate ban in schools
Parents of students with disabilities and disability rights groups are suing Iowa, claiming a law that bans mask mandates in schools discriminates against students with disabilities who are at higher risk for COVID-19.
The lawsuit, which was filed Friday in federal court in Des Moines, argues that the prohibition on universal masking effectively excludes students with disabilities from public schools and equal access to education in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
The plaintiffs are asking a judge to block the section of the law that forbids mask mandates in schools and to order Iowa to allow school districts to adopt mask mandates.
"It’s wrong to force kids out of school because they have health conditions and disabilities that put them at a higher risk of serious complications from COVID,” said ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen. "And it’s wrong to require parents to expose their children to these risks just so they can go to school."
The Iowa law banning mask mandates, which Gov. Kim Reynolds signed in May, has been highly controversial as students return to the classroom amid rising COVID-19 cases caused by the more infectious delta variant. The state already faces one other lawsuit and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.
Reynolds, a Republican, has adamantly defended the law. She has said she does not believe in government mandates and accused Democratic President Joe Biden of picking a "political fight" in response to the Department of Education investigation.
On Thursday, she declined to recommend students wear masks in schools, citing the law.
"It doesn't really matter because it's a law at this point," she said at a news conference.
The plaintiffs include 11 parents of students who are under 12 years old and therefore too young to be vaccinated, and the Arc of Iowa, a disability rights advocacy group. They are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and its Iowa affiliate, as well as Disability Rights Iowa, the Arc of the United States, Arnold & Porter and the Duff Law Firm.
The defendants in the case are Reynolds, Department of Education Director Ann Lebo and 10 school districts: Ankeny, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Decorah, Denver, Des Moines, Iowa City, Johnston, Linn Mar and Waterloo.
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Heather Preston of Des Moines, has two school-age children, one of whom has a rare organ disorder which her doctor says puts him at risk for serious illness if he gets COVID-19, according to the lawsuit.
"I know that a parent can't protect their child from all things, but they have a responsibility to protect them from serious safety threats," she said in a news conference Friday afternoon. "And for my son, going to a school where not everyone is wearing masks puts him at a huge risk. Meanwhile, because of his needs, he needs to be learning in person."
Reynolds said Thursday that parents of students with chronic health conditions could choose an online school option if they don’t feel safe sending their children to school when many people will not be wearing masks. She also said they could choose to wear a mask at school and recommended they consult with their doctors.
“We have to remember it’s their right to wear a mask,” she said. “They can make sure that they own an N-95, they can use a face shield. There’s various things that we can do to help mitigate their chances of being exposed. But again, it’s a law in Iowa.”
Reynolds’ spokesperson, Pat Garrett, did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Susan Mizner, the director of the ACLU’s disability rights program, said schools are offering less robust online options this year — often just prerecorded lessons — that don’t fulfill the needs of students with disabilities who benefit from more interaction with teachers.
“For students with disabilities who need the interaction, who need the correction, who need the feedback about what they’re learning, that is not an equal education as being in the classroom in person, having the teacher interact with you,” she said.
Promoting an online option for students with disabilities also segregates them from their peers, she said.
"You cannot say, 'Well, for students with disabilities we’re just going to put you over here and the rest of the students can be integrated with the rest of the community,'" she said.
Children in Iowa made up 22% of new COVID-19 cases over the past week, according to state data released Wednesday. That's far higher than the historical average of 12%. Meanwhile, 5% of those hospitalized in Iowa as of Friday afternoon were children under 18.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking in schools and that people wear masks in areas with high coronavirus transmission regardless of their vaccination status.
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.