The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit today 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, the 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. 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.
“The Eighth Circuit affirmed what we’ve known to be true from the start: School mask mandate bans are discriminatory and illegal,” said Susan Mizner, director of the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program. “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.”
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 today’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 accomodate 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.
The following are additional comments 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.”
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.”