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Federal Judge Puts Iowa's School Mask Mandate Ban on Hold

Michael Leland/Iowa Public Radio News
A state law passed in May banning school mask mandates has been temporarily blocked while a court challenge goes forward.

Enforcement of Iowa's ban on mask mandates in schools is on hold after a federal judge in Des Moines ruled that it creates an unfair risk for students with serious health conditions to attend class in-person.

The decision means school districts across the state can now issue universal mask requirements, as the CDC recommends, as long as the temporary order is in place

At least one district acted immediately on Monday. Hours after the ruling was made public, Des Moines Public Schools announced all students, staff and visitors must wear masks starting Wednesday. Thomas Ahart, the superintendent of the state’s largest school district, said in a statement that the court’s decision “to set aside Iowa’s ban on school districts being able to protect children in our care is welcome news.”

The temporary restraining order comes out of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and disability rights groups on behalf of 11 parents of children who would face severe health risks if they were to catch COVID-19.

State attorneys had argued that the mandate ban passed in May allows schools to issue targeted mask requirements, so a temporary injunction was not necessary. But U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt ruled that the requirements of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act supersede the state law on mask mandates.

“A universal masking requirement instituted by a school is a reasonable modification that would enable disabled students to have equal access to the necessary in-person school programs, services, and activities,” Pratt wrote.

“The Court recognizes issuing a (temporary restraining order) is an extreme remedy, however, 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.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds criticized the ruling saying it's contrary the decision made by the Republican-controlled legislature to leave the choice of whether children wear masks up to parents.

“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,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said the state will appeal the decision.

The Iowa State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is supporting the ruling but noted in a statement that it does not require districts to issue mask mandate. ISEA president Mike Beranek said districts should work from the guidelines set by the CDC and other public health agencies as they decide what to do next.

“We remain hopeful local school districts will stay focused on science and medicine as they move forward in making important decisions about our schools,” Beranek said.

By Monday evening, the ruling was already a topic of discussion at prescheduled school board meetings around the state. At a West Des Moines school board meeting, parent Jacqui Giltner recalled board members saying at the start of the year that their hands were tied by the state ban on mask mandates.

“Well, I’ve got good news, your hands are now untied,” Giltner said. “It’s time for a mask mandate in West Des Moines Community Schools for all people, in all parts of the building and on buses.”

If the board passes a mandate it will not be without opposition, even though the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend universal masking in schools as a key element to protect students who are unvaccinated or unable to be vaccinated.

“Please let those kids that want to be and those parents that want their kids to be mask free, let them be mask free,” said parent Tasha Schwingendorf. “Don’t force that on us. 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.”

The issue was not up for a vote Monday night because it hadn’t been listed on the board agenda. The district plans to arrange a special meeting later in the week.

Other districts will also have mask mandates on their agendas in the coming days. Ankeny and Iowa City are among the districts planning to discuss mask requirements on Tuesday. Johnston and Sioux City plan to take up the issue Wednesday.

Harvest Public Media's reporter at NET News, where he started as Morning Edition host in 2008. He joined Harvest Public Media in July 2012. Grant has visited coal plants, dairy farms, horse tracks and hospitals to cover a variety of stories. Before going to Nebraska, Grant studied mass communication as a grad student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his undergrad at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Iowa where he listened to public radio in the tractor, but has taken up city life in Lincoln, Neb.