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'Not an equal education': Parents of kids with disabilities sue over Iowa ban on mask mandates

A group of 11 parents filed a federal lawsuit arguing the law discriminates against students with disabilities.

DES MOINES, Iowa — A group of 11 parents of students with disabilities has filed a federal lawsuit over Iowa’s ban on mask mandates in schools, arguing it endangers their health and denies equal access to education.

This adds to the pressure on Gov. Kim Reynolds after the U.S. Department of Education announced it is investigating whether Iowa's law and similar ones in four other states violate federal anti-discrimination laws.

The lawsuit is in conjunction with The Arc of Iowa and is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). It is independent from another lawsuit over the ban filed by a Council Bluffs woman on Aug. 24, which is in district court.

The ACLU argues the ban on mask mandates violates the Americans with Disabilities Act  (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act.

"The lack of universal masking as the CDC and most public health authorities recommend has made the school environment so dangerous that their children have effectively been excluded," said Susan Mizner, the director of the ACLU Disability Rights Program.

One of the plaintiffs, Heather Preston, has two kids who go to school in Des Moines. One of her sons has an organ disorder, which puts him at a higher risk for complications from COVID-19.

"For my son, going to school, where not everyone is wearing masks put him at a huge risk," Preston said. "Meanwhile, because of his needs, he needs to be learning in person."

Reynolds defended the law at a press conference Thursday, saying it lets parents choose whether their students should wear masks. She said those who feel unsafe in class also have the option to enroll in online-only programs.

Credit: American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa
The Preston family has two children in Des Moines Schools, one of whom has an organ disorder.

RELATED: Iowa to update COVID metrics online on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays

Many school districts are offering remote learning options, but the ACLU said "virtually all" of the students represented in the lawsuit have tried that, and many of those options are not sufficient.

Districts like Ankeny, Des Moines, Linn Marr and Davenport are offering remote learning via third-party companies like Edgenuity and Edmentum.

Those options are self-paced and use pre-recorded videos, which the ACLU says requires extra support from parents.

"For students with disabilities who need the interaction, who need the correction, who need the feedback about what they're learning, that is not an equal education as being in the classroom in person, having the teacher interact with you," Mizner said.

Johnston, Decorah and Denver (Bremer County) school districts do not offer any remote learning options.

The ACLU plans to ask for a preliminary injunction to prevent enforcement of the ban, according to Rita Bettis Austen, the legal director for ACLU of Iowa.

RELATED: Marshalltown school district launches virtual academy, joining 22 other Iowa districts

WATCH: U.S. Department of Education investigating 5 states that have banned mask mandates in schools