116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Rapids Community School District “anticipates” a change eventually to its decision to remove a mask requirement in schools to accommodate children with special needs or compromised health circumstances.
The district removed its mask requirement Wednesday after a federal appeals panel ruled that an earlier injunction against a state law issued by district judge was too broad.
The appeals panel said the injunction should not have been statewide, but instead should be “tailored” to 10 districts named in a lawsuit. Moreover, the panel ruled that a mask mandate is a “reasonable accommodation” under federal law that could apply to schools elsewhere in the state if the school is attended by students whose disabilities make them more vulnerable to severe illness if they get COVID-19.
Sara Riley, a lawyer at the Tom Riley Law Firm in Cedar Rapids who was asked to provide an expert opinion, said the ruling does not only apply to school districts named in the lawsuit.
“Any school district that had a mask mandate in place as of last Friday that no longer does because they think they can’t — I don’t know who read that decision and gave them that advice,” Riley said.
The Iowa Attorney General’s Office told the Associated Press earlier this week that it will ask the full federal 8th Circuit Appeals Court based in Omaha — and not just the panel of three judges who ruled — to hear the case.
“The decision doesn’t take effect immediately. 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. 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 8th Circuit,” an attorney general’s spokesman said.
The Cedar Rapids district — which is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit but imposed a mask mandate in September after the statewide injunction was issued — is working with legal counsel to determine if the mandate can be reimposed, Superintendent Noreen Bush said in a statement to staff Wednesday.
Attorneys for the Cedar Rapids district are Emily Ellingson and Brett Nitzschke with Lynch Dallas in Cedar Rapids and Miriam Van Heukelem, Ahlers and Cooney in Des Moines. The attorneys have not yet responded to emails and phone calls from The Gazette requesting comment.
“As (the Cedar Rapids Community School District) learns about this new ruling in the next few days/weeks, we may learn of situations where masks may be required again in accordance with this ruling,“ Bush said in the letter. ”(The district) awaits guidance and will abide by any special requirements. As clearly communicated throughout this pandemic, (the district) will abide by any applicable Iowa laws.“
The lawsuit was filed by parents backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and disability rights organizations in September 2021 against Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo that sought to strike down a law from last year that bans schools from requiring masks.
While saying a judge hearing that case was too broad in enjoining the law from being enforced, the appeals panel allowed the parents of disabled children to keep pursuing a lawsuit that seeks to strike down the law. In fact, the panel said, the parents likely will succeed because masks are a reasonable accommodation for disabled students under the federal Rehabilitation Act.
The Linn-Mar Community School District, which is named as a defendant in the suit, stopped requiring students, staff and visitors to schools to wear a mask Jan. 3. In September, the school board voted to require masks for students in prekindergarten through sixth grade, a requirement that remained in effect until a COVID-19 vaccine was widely available for children.
A mask requirement remains for students, staff and visitors in the Iowa City Community School District, one of the districts subjected to the original injunction.
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