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Federal judge's temporary order allows Iowa schools to mandate masks

Judge Robert Pratt said in an order signed Monday that the law substantially increases the risk of several children with health conditions of contracting COVID-19.

DES MOINES, Iowa — A federal judge on Monday ordered the state of Iowa to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Judge Robert Pratt said in an order signed Monday that the law passed in May substantially increases the risk of several children with health conditions of contracting COVID-19.

Pratt said he has looked at data on the effectiveness of masks to reduce the spread of the virus and agrees with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics on mask wearing in schools.

"Because Plaintiffs have shown that Iowa Code section 280.31’s ban on mask mandates in schools substantially increases their risk of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19 and that due to their various medical conditions they are at an increased risk of severe illness or death, Plaintiffs have demonstrated that an irreparable harm exists," he wrote.

His order said Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo cannot enforce the new law banning local school districts from using their discretion to mandate masks for students, staff, teachers and visitors.

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He issued a temporary restraining order to be in effect immediately. It remains in effect until the court issues an order for a preliminary injunction.

Eleven parents and The Arc of Iowa, a group that defends the civil rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities sued the state on Sept. 3.

Reynolds said in a statement that the judge “unilaterally overturned a state law, ignored the decision by our elected legislature and took away parents’ ability to decide what’s best for their child.”

She said the state will appeal and “exercise every legal option we have to uphold state law and defend the rights and liberties afforded to any American citizen protected by our constitution.”

Pratt pointed out that it's been almost 40 years since the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that, regardless of citizenship status, denying school-aged children a free public education violates the U.S. Constitution.

He said the parents “want Iowa school districts to have the opportunity to comply with federal law and ensure that each child receives an education in the least-restrictive and the most-integrated environment — without jeopardizing their lives or safety.”

“Iowa’s mask mandate ban makes it not only dangerous for disabled or immunocompromised children to attend school, but several pediatricians opine it is also dangerous for healthy siblings to attend school in person because they risk carrying the virus back to their disabled or immunocompromised siblings,” Pratt said.

He said the AAP has recorded about 3,500 new COVID-19 cases among Iowa school-aged children since July and some public schools in Iowa are experiencing COVID-19 infection rates at upwards of 60% of last year’s total for the entire school year.

Lebo has said any districts that violate the law will be referred to the State Board of Education and risk loss of funding.

Pratt also points out that the motion by the parents to halt enforcement of the law comes on the heels of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announcing its investigation into whether Iowa’s mask mandate ban violates the Americans With Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act by discriminating against school-aged children with disabilities.

The parents in the lawsuit claim similar violations of federal law. They claim that in-person learning is essential and point out that Lebo remarked in January 2021 that a return to in-person learning is necessary as “students engaged in remote learning are falling behind academically.”

The parents of these children “thus lament the choice of having to either send their children to school in person with the rest of the kids their age without a mask mandate or swallow the lesser option that is not always available to them—remote learning," Pratt said.

He concluded that the law seems to conflict with the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act “because it excludes disabled children from participating in and denies them the benefits of public schools’ programs, services, and activities to which they are entitled.”

The Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) released a statement praising the judge's order, saying it is a "welcome relief." 

The statement reads in part: 

"The ISEA maintains the people in the best position to decide what is right for a school district are the people in that school district. The order returns this decision-making to the local level by temporarily lifting the mandate which prohibited action. We support local school districts’ ability to make decisions about the health and safety of their school community based on local metrics, needs, and requirements, especially when those decisions protect our most vulnerable students.

Additionally, we remain hopeful local school districts will stay focused on science and medicine as they move forward in making important decisions about our schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend face coverings for vaccinated and unvaccinated especially in school settings and in close contact situations.  Vaccination, masking, distancing, hand washing, and proper ventilation are proven to help slow the spread for students, families, educators, and communities."

Gov. Kim Reynolds released the following statement about the order: 

“Today, a federal judge unilaterally overturned a state law, ignored the decision by our elected legislature and took away parents’ ability to decide what’s best for their child. We will appeal and exercise every legal option we have to uphold state law and defend the rights and liberties afforded to any American citizen protected by our constitution." 

It's important to note this order does not "unilaterally overturn" the law as Reynolds said in her statement. The judge's temporary restraining order is blocking the law from going into effect until further court rulings. 

Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, called the judge's decision, "judicial activism". He spoke at a campaign event in Ankeny Monday night.

Read the judge's order below

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