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Eighth Circuit Dismisses Challenge to Iowa’s Mask-Mandate Ban in Public Schools

On February 27, 2024, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an Order regarding Arc of Iowa, et. al., v. Reynolds, et. al. that reversed course on its prior decision that the plaintiffs were entitled to an injunction prohibiting enforcement of Iowa’s ban on mask-mandates in public schools. This case was originally brought by the parents of immunocompromised children (by The Arc of Iowa, an advocacy group for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities) against Gov. Kim Reynolds, Director of Education Ann Lebo, and a number of school districts. The plaintiffs alleged the ban on mask-mandates presented them with a choice of exposing their children to extra risk from COVID exposure, or to sacrifice the quality of their children’s education by using educational alternatives.

The lawsuit was initiated in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plaintiffs were initially granted a temporary restraining order (TRO) by the Southern District of Iowa on September 13, 2021, with the Court finding among other things that the plaintiffs had sufficiently demonstrated a threat of irreparable harm and that they were likely to succeed on the merits of their case. However, on January 25, 2022, the Eighth Circuit reviewed the Southern District’s TRO and vacated it in part, finding that the TRO was not narrowly tailored to protect the interests of the plaintiffs, and remanded the matter back to the Southern District to retailor the TRO. But before the lower court  could do so, the Eighth Circuit reconsidered its earlier order and vacated the TRO as being moot – holding that the landscape of the pandemic had changed substantially since the plaintiffs initiated their suit; most notably that there had come a COVID vaccine that was FDA approved for children.

In reconsidering its position, the Eighth Circuit determined that the plaintiff’s lacked “standing” required to sue in federal court, as spelled out in Article III of the U.S. Constitution. Essentially, standing requires that the claimant suffered an injury-in-fact (meaning not just a speculative risk of harm, but a reasonably certain harm) that can be fairly traced back to the conduct of the defendant and that can likely be redressed by the court. The Court sided with decisions of the First, Fifth, and Sixth Circuits in determining that though COVID remains an “ever-present concern in society”, with the development of vaccines and treatments the general risks associated with COVID “are not enough to show ‘imminent and substantial harm’” for the purposes of standing. The Court held that “the potential risk of severe illness should they contract COVID-19 at school … is too speculative to satisfy the injury in fact element.”

Finally, the Court noted that the Code does not prohibit a school from complying with disability laws, and the plaintiffs did not claim that they made a request for masking as a reasonable accommodation. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether these parents may succeed in their quest to mandate masks in schools by requesting them as a reasonable accommodation to their disabled children under the ADA or Rehabilitation.

Questions? Contact John Simmons in our Davenport office by email or at 563-333-9102

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