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Appeals court upholds law banning mask mandates in schools

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Appeals court upholds law banning mask mandates in schools

Feb 27, 2024 | 6:26 pm ET
By Clark Kauffman
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Appeals court upholds law banning mask mandates in schools
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A court has ruled that the parents of disabled Iowa children lack standing to challenge a law that bans mask mandates in schools. (Stock photo/Getty Images)

A federal appeals court has ruled that a group of Iowa parents of children with disabilities lack the legal standing to sue the state over a law prohibiting schools from imposing mask mandates.

ARC of Iowa, a nonprofit that helps individuals with intellectual disabilities, and the parents of several Iowa children with disabilities, had sued the state over a law that prevents schools from imposing mask mandates on students and staff to combat the spread of COVID-19.

On Tuesday, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state by stating the plaintiffs lacked the legal standing to bring such a lawsuit.

The legal battle dates back to 2021, when Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation prohibiting school districts from imposing mask mandates on staff and students. That triggered a lawsuit brought by ARC of Iowa and the parents of children who have disabilities or chronic health conditions that put them at greater risk of complications if they contract COVID-19.

The parents alleged the state was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by making it impossible for school districts to make reasonable accommodations for their children through the imposition of mask mandates.

An injunction was issued preventing the enforcement of the new law, but Reynolds appealed that decision. In 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit vacated the injunction, noting that COVID-19 conditions in classrooms had changed since the beginning of the pandemic.

That ruling focused only on the injunction and not on the broader issue of the law’s legality. Litigation over that issue continued and in November 2022, a federal judge again ruled in favor of the parents, noting that doctors for three students had recommended the students’ teachers and classmates be masked.

In that decision, the district court stated that the new law could not be cited as the sole basis for denying a school’s request for a waiver of the mask-mandate law due to the Americans with Disabilities Act and that law’s requirement that schools provide “reasonable accommodation” to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

Reynolds appealed the ruling, arguing that ARC and the parents lacked any legal standing to bring their case, and that they had not satisfied all of the requirements of the ADA.

In its ruling on Tuesday, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that to establish standing, ARC of Iowa and the parents would have to show an injury tied to the conduct of the state and show that such an injury could be redressed by a favorable court ruling.

The appeals court found that ARC of Iowa and the parents could show no such injury and had simply challenged “rights” that they believed schools should have with regard to mask mandates.

“The crux of any dispute – if there is one — appears to perhaps be between the state and the school districts,” the appeals court stated. “Since the school districts did not appeal and are not a party before us, the precise nature of any ongoing dispute is unclear to us.”

Citing prior decisions in other jurisdictions, the court said “the general risks associated with COVID-19, even though COVID-19 remains an ever-present concern in society, are not enough to show imminent and substantial harm for standing.” Those prior decisions found that the increased risk of contracting COVID-19 was “insufficient” to demonstrate an impending future injury, in part because the odds of contracting COVID-19 and suffering complications would be speculative.

Because ARC of Iowa and the parents of the disabled students “only alleged the potential risk of severe illness should they contract COVID-19 at school, the risk of harm is too speculative,” the court said in its decision Tuesday.

It added that even if the added risk of contracting COVID-19 wasn’t speculative, the plaintiffs still had not alleged that a school had denied their request for a mask mandate as a reasonable accommodation they were seeking under the rights bestowed by the ADA.

Although the appeals court’s decision doesn’t address the merits of a ban on mask mandates, Reynolds and Bird characterized the ruling as a victory for parents and for freedom.

“While children were the least vulnerable, they paid the highest price for COVID lockdowns and mandates, but Iowa was a different story,” Reynolds said in a written statement. “Iowa was the first state to get students back in the classroom and we prohibited mask mandates in schools, trusting parents to decide what was best for their children. Elected leaders should always trust the people they serve, and I promise I would do it again.”

In a written statement, Bird said, “Freedom wins in today’s court ruling to uphold Iowa’s law banning mask mandates in schools. Parents have the right to choose what healthcare decisions are best for their kids. As attorney general, I support Iowans’ rights and freedoms and will continue fighting to defend them.”