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Last Tuesday, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision on the lawsuit against our law passed last spring which prohibited schools from implementing mask mandates on students, staff or visitors. In short, the ruling said the law we passed should stand but that schools could tailor their mask policy to focus on protecting those students with disabilities that face significant health risks from COVID-19.

What did our law do?  It prohibited a school from requiring masks be worn by students, employees, or visitors, with extremely limited exceptions.
That meant school districts were required to allow parents to decide if a mask was appropriate for their child or not.

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What prompted the lawsuit against our law?  Parents of children who have various medical conditions filed the lawsuit in federal court claiming our law violated the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act (RA), and other federal laws. These parents argued that their children were placed in grave danger because of their medical conditions and could not safely attend school if a school did not require masks.

How has the court ruled on this lawsuit?  The lawsuit was filed in September of 2021 and in October the 8th Circuit issued a preliminary injunction, preventing our law from being enforced. This allowed schools to impose their own mask mandates to students, staff and visitors.  A very small percentage of school districts chose to require masks:  24 out of 357 school districts.

Then what happened?  The case was appealed by the State of Iowa and hearings were held in December by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Keep in mind during the appeal process the injunction has remained in place allowing schools to enforce mask mandates.

What was the Court of Appeals ruling?  Last Tuesday, the court issued a complicated 24-page ruling. In a 2-1 decision, the judges determined that the injunction was too broad since it applied to all schools in all situations and was not tailored to protect children who were medically fragile and at risk from COVID. Therefore, the injunction was lifted.  However, masks were also deemed to be a reasonable accommodation and school boards will be permitted to draft mask policies focused on protecting students who face significant health risks from COVID-19. Throughout the ruling, the judges continually reinforced that masks are no different than any other accommodation required under the ADA and compared the requirement that they are worn to having a wheelchair ramp in public places.

Will kids be required to wear masks again?  The appeals court directed the lower court to reissue their injunction in line with the standards set by the appellate court. This means the district court cannot allow the mask mandate to be universal but must be tailored to meet the needs of students. The Attorney General’s office has said they intend to appeal the ruling but will also not enforce our law at this time. This leaves schools in a gray area as they determine if they will tailor a mask mandate focused on the specific needs of certain students or to simply not require any masking. Keep in mind, this is not the final decision and whatever injunction the district court issues will only stand while the case makes its way through the court system and a final ruling is issued.

What can parents do?  Parents are now back in control of deciding if their child wears a mask or not.  At least for now.  If the school chooses to enact a new mask mandate under the parameters of this decision, parents have the right to fill out an exemption form to excuse their child from any mandate.

We will be carefully watching this lawsuit to determine what steps should be taken to ensure parents remain in charge of their children’s health care decisions.

Author: Sandy Salmon

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