Iowa's ban on local mask mandates earns federal attention

Tuesday, August 31, 2021
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation in May which prevents local entities — such as schools — from requiring more strict use of face coverings than state policies. The U.S Department of Education is currently investigating whether Iowa's law, and those like it in other states, violate the rights of students with disabilities who may be at risk of more severe illness if they contract the COVID-19 virus. (File photo)

Masks required again in Iowa courts

The United States Department of Education said this week it will be looking into whether states which prohibit local-level governments and entities from imposing mask mandates are violating the rights of individuals with disabilities who may be at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19. The department's Office of Civil Rights sent letters to five states — including one to Ann Lebo, the director of Iowa's Department of Education — on Monday. The letters come after an Aug. 18 directive from President Joe Biden to assess and ensure all students have the opportunity to safely participate in school full-time and in-person.

“The Department has heard from parents from across the country – particularly parents of students with disabilities and with underlying medical conditions – about how state bans on universal indoor masking are putting their children at risk and preventing them from accessing in-person learning equally,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve. The department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall.”  

Iowa's Gov. Reynolds took to social media Monday afternoon to say President Joe Biden and others "decided to pick a political fight with a handful of governors to distract from his own failures — Afghanistan, the border, inflation and more."

"In Iowa, we will continue to support individual liberty over government mandates," Reynolds said in another post.

The department said the opening of an investigation does not imply officials have determined a violation of the law has occurred, and it went on to say the Office of Civil Rights acts as a neutral fact finder during the investigation.

In the letter to Lebo, federal officials cited the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in saying the consistent and correct use of masks remains important this school year in light of the Delta variant of the respiratory virus. Reynolds signed a bill in May, restricting local governments and schools from implementing mask mandates more strict than state policies, but face coverings necessary for extracurricular activities or other instructional purposes are still allowed under the bill.

"It is unclear whether this prohibition remains in place even if the school or district determines, given the COVID-19 transmission rates in the surrounding area, that a mask requirement is necessary to protect students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19," the department's letter to Lebo said.

The letter cited the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — which gives students with disabilities the right to "receive their education in the regular educational environment, along side their peers without disabilities" — as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 — which the department said "similarly prohibits disability discrimination by public entities, including public education systems" whether they receive federal financial assistance or not.

"In this investigation, particular attention will be given to whether the Iowa Department of Education may be preventing schools from making individualized assessments about mask use so that students with disabilities can attend school and participate in school activities in person, consistent with their right to receive a free appropriate public education and to be free from discrimination based on their disability," the letter said.

The U.S. Department of Education said its counterparts at the state level have the option of reaching a voluntary resolution prior to the end of the investigation. Federal officials also sent similar letters to departments in Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah to inform them of expected investigations. A statement from the U.S. Department of Education said its Office of Civil Rights has so far not opened investigations in Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona "because those states' bans on universal indoor masking are not currently being enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions." However, it said the department is still keeping an eye on those states in case action is needed.

Iowa courts mandate masks

The Iowa Supreme Court on Aug. 27 issued an order requiring all individuals — regardless of vaccination status — to wear a face covering when entering a court-controlled area.

"The Iowa Judicial Branch is balancing the need to take measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 with its commitment to conduct the important work of the courts," the order said, noting officials had reviewed recent revisions to CDC guidance in light of the Delta variant.

The court's decision applies to courtrooms statewide, and is not dependent on the positive test rate or transmission in a county or other area. However, the order did note judges are allowed discretion in permitting court participants to remove their masks as well as taking other steps to lessen the potential spread of the virus in court.

The Iowa Supreme Court previously decided in November to postpone all of Iowa's jury trials in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the state's court work was conducted remotely in the months that followed, and restrictions were gradually lifted. Masking in Iowa courts became voluntary for vaccinated individuals in May — but social distancing and other mitigation strategies remained in place regardless of vaccination status. Most recently in mid-June, the Iowa Supreme Court allowed several types of court proceedings to resume and gave judges discretion in providing physical distance and "cleansing requirements" in court.

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