The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on Tuesday ruled that the Rehab Act requires schools to impose universal masking rules where necessary, to ensure students with disabilities have access to public school education. 

The decision comes in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Iowa, Disability Rights Iowa, The Arc of the United States, Arnold & Porter, and Duff Law Firm, P.L.C. on behalf of The Arc of Iowa and 11 parents of children with disabilities, according to an ACLU release. The Eighth Circuit held that the clients are entitled to a preliminary injunction to ensure that the defendant school districts in Iowa are providing for universal masking as a reasonable accommodation so that students with disabilities can go to school safely. 

From Davenport Schools

An announcement from Davenport Schools Tuesday afternoon reacts to the ruling:

“A federal court decision ruled that a statewide injunction against the Iowa Mask Ban was a broader action than necessary. The case will now go back to the District Court for further review,” says a message from Dan Gosa, president of Davenport School Board.

“As a result of (the) ruling, the Davenport Community School District will remove all universal mandatory masking requirements for students and staff throughout the district effective immediately per Iowa law,” Gosa says.

“Students and staff who choose to mask may continue to do so. In compliance with the President’s Executive Order on all domestic transportation, students are still required to wear a face covering while on the school bus or while utilizing other District provided transportation.”

Local 4 News reached to school district leaders about this, because the legal expert to whom we spoke and the American Civil Liberties Union both interpret the appeals court ruling as favorable to mask mandates in schools. The district’s move might have been unnecessary considering the ruling.

Gosa referred Local 4 News to Superintendent TJ Schneckloth. A spokesperson for the district said it stands by the statement and would not make another comment.

From the ACLU

“The Eighth Circuit affirmed what we’ve known to be true from the start: School mask mandate bans are discriminatory and illegal,” Susan Mizner, director of the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program, said in Tuesday’s release. “To be able to attend schools safely, many students with disabilities need their schools to require masks. At a time when COVID-19 is ravaging our communities once again, this decision ensures that schools can continue to take basic public health precautions like requiring universal masking to protect their students.”

History of Iowa mask legislation

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill into law May 2021, banning mask mandates across the state. The bill prevented K-12 schools in Iowa from being able to mandate the use of face masks. It also prevented Iowa cities and counties from requiring masks in businesses.

The Arc of Iowa and a group of Iowa parents of children with serious disabilities that place them at heightened risk of severe injury or death from COVID-19 sued to prohibit enforcement of Iowa’s law prohibiting mask requirements in schools.

A federal district court in September enjoined the state from barring mask mandates, recognizing that “forcing children to bear the brunt of societal discord is ‘illogical and unjust.’” The state then appealed that decision, resulting in Tuesday’s ruling. 

“Today’s decision is an important victory for the civil rights of children with disabilities in Iowa, who have a right to go to school with their peers,” said Rita Bettis Austen, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa.No parent should have to choose between their child’s health and safety and their education, but that is the terrible position that the state put our clients in. It’s important to note that the court’s reasoning also means that even schools that are not named in the lawsuit should be requiring masks when needed to accommodate students with disabilities so they can go to school with their peers. This decision is a huge relief to families across our state.”

The groups are arguing in the lawsuit that federal civil rights laws require schools to be able to require universal masking to give students with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from their public education. 

From Shira Wakschlag, senior director, legal advocacy and general counsel at The Arc of the United States:

“In the midst of yet another COVID-19 surge, the court is making it clear that students with disabilities have the right to go to school safely during this pandemic. The Arc will continue fighting to ensure that students with disabilities in Iowa and nationwide are able to attend their neighborhood schools alongside their peers without putting their health and their lives at risk.”

From Catherine  E.  Johnson, executive director of Disability Rights Iowa: 

“I welcome today’s ruling that universal masking as an accommodation is both reasonable and necessary for students with disabilities to attend school in-person safely during the ongoing pandemic. This ruling comes during a time when Iowa is experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases throughout the state. We are hopeful this opinion provides relief, confidence and clarity for parents, students, and schools to work collaboratively to restore our students’ long established civil rights under federal law and safely return our students with disabilities to their schools.”