116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — A federal judge ordered Monday that the state of Iowa immediately halt enforcement of a new law that prevents local school boards from ordering masks to be worn in classrooms to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Judge Robert Pratt said in an order signed Monday that the measure passed in May by Republicans in the Iowa Legislature and quickly signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds substantially increases the risk of children with existing health conditions of contracting COVID-19.
Pratt said he has looked at data on the effectiveness of masks to reduce spread of the virus and agreed with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics on mask wearing in schools.
"Because Plaintiffs have shown that Iowa Code section 280.31's ban on mask mandates in schools substantially increases their risk of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19 and that due to their various medical conditions they are at an increased risk of severe illness or death, Plaintiffs have demonstrated that an irreparable harm exists," he wrote.
His order said Reynolds and Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo cannot enforce the law that bans locally elected school boards from using their discretion to mandate masks for students, staff, teachers and visitors inside schools.
He issued a temporary restraining order to be in effect immediately. It remains in effect until the court issues an order for a preliminary injunction.
Several school districts including Cedar Rapids said Monday they were reviewing the order and their options. But the state’s largest school system — Des Moines — quickly imposed a mask mandate, according to the Des Moines Register.
“With today’s ruling, as Superintendent I will reinstate a mask mandate — as we had in place for most of last school year — for all students, staff and visitors to Des Moines Public Schools," Superintendent Tom Ahart said in a statement, the Register reported.
Eleven parents and The Arc of Iowa, a group that defends the civil rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, sued the state Sept. 3 in the Southern District of Iowa over the law. The plaintiffs are parents of children under 12 — kids too young to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.
Reynolds said in a statement after the ruling that the 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." She said the state 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."
Republican Pat Grassley, speaker of the Iowa House, similarly invoked parental rights in a statement. “As your elected Legislature, we took necessary steps to return decision-maker power to parents. This partisan federal judge's decision strips parents of those freedoms we fought so hard to protect,” he said.
With an internet link provided in his statement, Grassley noted that Pratt is the same federal judge who apologized after making comments last year to the Associated Press that mocked Republican former President Donald Trump over his use of pardons.
In his order, Pratt pointed out that it's been almost 40 years since the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that denying school-aged children a free public education violates the U.S. Constitution. He said the parents in the lawsuit "want Iowa school districts to have the opportunity to comply with federal law and ensure that each child receives an education in the least-restrictive and the most-integrated environment without jeopardizing their lives or safety."
"Iowa's mask mandate ban makes it not only dangerous for disabled or immunocompromised children to attend school, but several pediatricians opine it is also dangerous for healthy siblings to attend school in person because they risk carrying the virus back to their disabled or immunocompromised siblings," Pratt said.
He said the national pediatrics academy has recorded about 3,500 new COVID-19 cases among Iowa school-aged children since July and some public schools in Iowa already are experiencing infection rates at upward of 60 percent of last year's total for the entire school year.
Pratt also points out that the motion by the parents to halt enforcement of the law comes on the heels of the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights announcing its investigation into whether the mask mandate ban in Iowa and several other Republican-led states violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act by discriminating against school-aged children with disabilities.
Lebo has said any districts that violate the state law will be referred to the State Board of Education and risk loss of funding. However, the Biden administration announced last week it was establishing a program under which school districts around the nation that went against state laws banning mask mandates could seek emergency federal funding.
The parents in the Iowa lawsuit claim that in-person learning is essential, and point out that Lebo remarked in January 2021 that a return to in-person learning is necessary as "students engaged in remote learning are falling behind academically."
The parents of these children "thus lament the choice of having to either send their children to school in person with the rest of the kids their age without a mask mandate or swallow the lesser option that is not always available to them — remote learning," Pratt said.
He concluded that the law seems to conflict with the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act "because it excludes disabled children from participating in and denies them the benefits of public schools' programs, services, and activities to which they are entitled."