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DES MOINES — Eight Iowa school districts including Linn-Mar are violating a judicial order by not reinstating face mask requirements, the American Civil Liberties Union’s state chapter asserted in a letter sent Friday to those districts.
The eight districts — Ankeny, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Decorah, Denver, Johnston, Linn-Mar and Waterloo — should have mask requirements to protect the students with disabilities who filed a lawsuit challenging a state law that prohibited face mask requirements in schools, the ACLU said.
On Jan. 25, a federal appeals court ruled the plaintiffs — families whose children have disabilities from across 10 Iowa school districts — should receive immediate relief from the new state law because those students’ health would be placed in danger in a school without a face mask requirement. The appeals ruling agreed with a lower court order that the parents deserved an injunction against the law being enforced since it violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act, but said the injunction should not have automatically been made to apply to every district in the state.
Since the initial ruling, only Des Moines and Iowa City, who also are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, have implemented face mask requirements, the ACLU said. The eight districts that received letters Friday have not, the ACLU said.
“Based on the legal force of the Eighth Circuit’s opinion, we are asking these eight schools to restore their mask mandates immediately because they are still necessary for our clients’ children to go to school safely during this time,” ACLU of Iowa legal director Rita Bettis Austen said in a statement.
“Failing to require masking when it is necessary as a reasonable accommodation forces our clients to choose between their children’s health and their education.”
The Linn-Mar, Davenport and Council Bluffs school districts said Friday they would not comment on the letter, and the Waterloo school district did not respond to a request seeking comment.
The ACLU’s letters ask the districts to respond within a week and states that, if districts do not respond, the plaintiffs will consider further legal action. Bettis Austen during a news conference Friday said that the ACLU does not forecast litigation strategy.
“It’s really a misreading of the 8th Circuit (appeals court) decision to view it as a green light to lift those masking requirements when they’re required in order for kids with disabilities to be able to go to school safely on equal terms with their peers,” Bettis Austen said.
“This is about enforcing existing anti-discrimination protections for kids to go to school and that they have a right to go to school on the same basis of their peers without discrimination,” Bettis Austen added. “One of the functions of discrimination protections is to ensure that individuals who are part of a minority have their rights protected when a majority may be interested in violating those rights. We wouldn’t have these anti-discrimination protections if they weren’t necessary.”
The letters address only districts to which a plaintiff in the lawsuit attends. The ACLU said its interpretation of the Jan. 25 ruling is that any district must make similar accommodations for students with disabilities. And Bettis Austen said the ACLU may take action against other schools in the future.
“The rights of those children are also important to us,” Bettis Austen said.
The Linn-Mar Community School District stopped requiring students, staff and visitors to schools to wear a mask Jan. 3. In September, the school board had 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.
Kevin Fry, Linn-Mar communication director, said Friday the district has no comment on the ACLU letter. The district declined to comment on questions from The Gazette asking if officials plan to reinstate a mask mandate or if it will be a discussion item for the school board at its next meeting on Feb. 14.
A mask requirement remains for students, staff and visitors in the Iowa City Community School District. Because the district is continuing to require masks, it did not receive a letter from the ACLU.
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Grace King of The Gazette contributed to this report.