A group of parents of disabled students filed a lawsuit Friday seeking to strike down Iowa's law banning schools from requiring masks, arguing it endangers their health and denies equal access to education.
The lawsuit, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and disability rights organizations, adds to the legal pressure facing the law as virus cases and hospitalizations climb in Iowa to their highest levels since last winter.
The U.S. Department of Education launched investigations this week into whether the Iowa law and similar measures in four other Republican-led states illegally discriminate against students with disabilities or health conditions.
A Council Bluffs mother of twin boys has filed a state lawsuit challenging the measure, and a judge has scheduled a hearing next week on whether to grant a temporary injunction blocking its enforcement.
The lawsuit filed Friday in federal court in Des Moines involves children who are too young to be vaccinated and have disabilities that make them susceptible to potentially severe COVID-19 cases, including a rare organ disorder, cerebral palsy and asthma.
Their parents argue the law effectively excludes them from in-person learning in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
“Prohibiting schools from taking reasonable steps to protect the health of their students forces parents to make an impossible choice: their child's education or their child's health,” said Susan Mizner, director of the ACLU's Disability Rights Program, which has filed a similar lawsuit in South Carolina.
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The lawsuit names Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo and several school districts as defendants, including those in Des Moines, Davenport, Ankeny, Waterloo and Iowa City. The plaintiffs said they would seek a temporary restraining order seeking to block enforcement of the law as soon as possible.
At a news conference Thursday, Reynolds defended the law and said the state’s rising number of cases was no cause for panic. She said “the risk of serious illness among children is minimal” and called their low rate of hospitalization encouraging.
Asked what she would tell parents who are concerned about unvaccinated children with chronic health conditions feeling unsafe in classrooms, Reynolds noted they can enroll in online-only options instead. She said she has heard from more parents of children who have had “severe” reactions to masks and believe they impede their learning.
“Parents understand and know the health of their children. They are the best person to decide that course of action for their children,” she said.
Mizner said at a news conference Friday that some remote learning options now feature pre-recorded lessons in which students do not have interaction with live teachers. She said that was a lesser service than classroom learning and “particularly inappropriate” for disabled students who benefit from more hands-on interaction.
Under the law passed on the final day of the legislative session in May, school boards and superintendents cannot require students and employees to wear masks. Mask wearing must be optional, and anecdotal reports suggest it is limited in many schools.
The law conflicts with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends universal mask wearing for students and teachers in the classroom. The CDC issued the guidance in light of the rapid spread of the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19.
The legal challenges come as 500,000 students have started classes in recent days in Iowa. Clusters of infections involving children and educators, and potential exposure among their colleagues, are already disrupting some schools.
Iowa is averaging about 1,200 confirmed COVID-19 cases per day over the last week, and roughly a quarter of those are among those age 17 and under. About 5% of Iowa patients hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 infections as of Wednesday were age 17 or below.
Unlike last fall, schools are barred by law from offering a hybrid schedule or temporarily moving to online-only classes without having to make up the time later.
Citing that new reality, the Newton school district reported that 29 students and eight employees were absent from an elementary school Wednesday due to COVID-19 and other illnesses but that in-person classes would go on without changes.