Des Moines, Iowa — Today eight of the 10 schools involved in a lawsuit to protect children with disabilities with a masking mandate were sent letters from the plaintiff's attorneys, informing the schools that they are in violation of the January 25 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
"Based on the legal force of the Eighth Circuit’s opinion, we are asking these eight schools to restore their mask mandates immediately because they are still necessary for our clients’ children to go to school safely during this time," said Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director. "Failing to require masking when it is necessary as a reasonable accommodation forces our clients to choose between their children’s health and their education."
Specifically, the January 25 ruling states on page 2 that “mask requirements constitute a reasonable modification” for the children involved in the lawsuit and a school’s failure to provide this modification likely violates the Rehabilitation Act."
The schools receiving the letters are:
- Ankeny Community School District
- Council Bluffs Community School District
- Davenport Community School District
- Decorah Community School District
- Denver Community School District
- Johnston Community School District
- Linn-Mar Community School District
- Waterloo Community School District
Letters were not sent to the Des Moines Public School District or the Iowa City Public School District—also involved in the lawsuit—because they are following the law in maintaining their masking requirements after the 8th Circuit’s decision.
Most of the letters, as well as some client photos, other photos, and organizational logos, can be viewed here.
The letters ask the schools to respond within one week and specify that if they do not, the plaintiffs will consider further action, including further litigation, to ensure that the schools are complying with their obligations under federal law.
Susan Mizner, director of the national ACLU's Disability Rights Program, said, "We know everyone has coped with this pandemic for a long time. We hope that our better natures—and our love for these children—can overcome that fatigue for just a bit longer. We trust these schools and communities to care about all their students, including their students with disabilities."
Regarding Schools Not Involved in the Lawsuit
Bettis Austen said that the January 25 ruling also spelled out the obligation that schools not named in the lawsuit have under federal law to be proactive in protecting students with disabilities making them more vulnerable to serious illness or death from COVID-19 with masking requirements. These include students with common disabilities such as asthma and diabetes. Click here to see the full list of the CDC's current list of conditions.
"Unfortunately, some of the schools not named in the lawsuit have misinterpreted the 8th Circuit’s ruling as a green light for lifting existing mask mandates," Bettis Austen said.
"That misinterpretation appears to have stemmed from the Eighth Circuit directing the district court to narrow the injunction to just those school districts named in the lawsuit. However, that narrowing of the injunction doesn't mean that other Iowa schools can lift mask mandates if masking is necessary to protect children with disabilities who go to those schools. Those schools still have to follow federal disability rights law," Bettis Austen said.
"Those schools are ignoring the fact that the Court also said that the Iowa law prohibiting mask requirements includes an exception for schools to require masks when needed in order to comply with federal disability rights laws. School districts not involved in the lawsuit must still follow the Eighth Circuit’s decision, which recognizes that schools must provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities, and found that masking is a reasonable accommodation," Bettis Austen said.
In addition, some schools further misinterpreted the January 25 ruling as applying only to students with a specific, individual education plan that requires masking. However, "The Court's decision was clear that an individualized process is not required, and schools should not wait to be asked by a student for these accommodations before they act to protect them," Bettis Austen said.
Today's letters address only those schools involved in the lawsuit. Bettis Austen said, "We are also committed to ensuring the rights of children with disabilities in other schools in Iowa who are failing to provide masking mandates when required as a reasonable accommodation, and may decide to take further action against unnamed school districts."
For more details about the January 25 ruling, click here.