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Sunday Talk: Stone on Mask Mandates in School

Week three was packed with committee and subcommittee meetings. The first funnel week is coming up soon which leads to a big push of bills to committees. There were seventy House subcommittee meetings this week alone! Floor debate has not yet started, but all these meetings will get bills set for floor debate.

In Complicated Court Decision, Mask Mandates in School Are Out…But May Return in Some Situations

Tuesday, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision on the continuing lawsuit language in HF 847 which prohibited schools from implementing mask mandates on students, staff or visitors. The ruling adds more confusing elements to an already complicated legal process.

What does HF 847 do?
HF 847 contained language which prohibits a school from requiring masks be worn by students, employees, or visitors, with extremely limited exceptions. When the bill was passed, school districts were required to allow parents to decide if a mask was appropriate for their child or not.

What prompted the lawsuit?
Parents of children who have various medical conditions filed the lawsuit claiming HF 847 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 the bill 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. Only 24 out of 357 districts required masks to be worn at this time.

What happened after the first injunction?
The case was appealed by the State of Iowa and hearings were held in December by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. During the appeal process the injunction has remained in place allowing schools to enforce  mask mandates.

What was the Court of Appeals ruling?
On Tuesday, the court issued a complicated 24-page ruling. In a 2-1 decision, the judges determined that the original 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 making any current mask mandates unenforceable.  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 lower court has been directed to reissue the injunction in line with the standards set by the appellate court. This means the mask mandate cannot be universal but must be tailored to meet the needs of students. The Attorney General’s office has said they intent to appeal the ruling but will also not enforce HF 847 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.

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 until the parameters of this decision, parents have the right to fill out an exemption form to excuse their child from any mandate.

I along with House Republicans are carefully watching this lawsuit to determine what steps should be taken to ensure parents remain in charge of their children’s health care decisions

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