DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — An Iowa woman has amended her lawsuit over the state's ban on mandatory face masks in schools to include allegations the law violates state and federal constitutional protections, a move that came as federal education officials on Monday questioned Iowa’s ban and as hospitals scramble to care for increasing numbers of people sick with the coronavirus.
Frances Parr, of Council Bluffs, last week sued the state, Gov. Kim Reynolds and several state officials last week in Polk County District Court. The lawsuit seeks an order requiring the state to issue a universal mask mandate for all students and school personnel until a voluntary plan can be implemented that segregates mask-wearing students and staff from those who opt not to wear masks.
A revised petition was filed on Friday by Parr's attorney Daniel McGinn. It additionally asked the court to declare that the law violates equal protection and due process rights guaranteed in the federal and state constitutions. The lawsuit also claims the law is unenforceable under a doctrine recognized in Iowa since 1918 that holds that schools must be safe by “putting students at risk of COVID-19 and the delta variant for no rational reason. Neither the state nor parents have a right to unnecessarily expose a child to a communicable disease.”
Parr — whose children were set to start first grade in the Council Bluffs Community School District this fall, but will instead be taught at home over their mother's fear for their safety — asks the court to prevent the state from enforcing the law or at least the section of the law that applies to schools.
The additional filing came on the day that the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court signed an order making masks mandatory in areas controlled by the courts in contrast to the state law, which bans similar mandates in public schools. The order signed by Chief Justice Susan Christensen cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for mask wearing, recommendations Reynolds has ignored when it comes to schools. She has voiced her doubt about whether masks would prevent outbreaks in schools despite significant evidence that they do help slow coronavirus spread.
Also on Friday a state court judge ruled that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis overstepped his authority when he issued an executive order banning mask mandates. The judge noted that school boards can reasonably argue that maskless students endanger the health of other students and teachers. DeSantis is expected to appeal.
The U.S. Education Department announced Monday that it’s investigating Iowa and four other Republican-led states enforcing universal mask bans, saying the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions. Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah are the other states that have barred schools from requiring masks among students and staff, a move that the department says could prevent some students from safely attending school.
“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement.
The Des Moines school district, which has often clashed with Reynolds over health precautions amid the pandemic, issued a statement offering support for the federal action.
“Des Moines Public Schools strongly supports and encourages the wearing of face masks by our students and staff at this time," district spokesman Phil Roeder said in the statement. “Unfortunately, Iowa has outlawed the ability of local governments to take even the most basic steps in order to protect the health and well-being of children in our care. If our state government doesn’t change its position as the pandemic continues then hopefully the federal government will find a legal path that allows us to do more to keep our students and staff safe."
Reynolds also issued a statement, accusing Biden of picking “a political fight" with the governors to distract from news from Afghanistan, the U.S. border and inflation.
“As I’ve said all along, I believe and trust in Iowans to make the best health decisions for themselves and their families," Reynolds said. “Iowa’s democratically elected legislature endorsed that view as well when they passed a law to support a parent’s right to decide what’s best for their own children. In Iowa, we will continue to support individual liberty over government mandates.”
The controversy over the law is building as Iowa experiences a surge in COVID-19 delta variant cases. In the past month Iowa has gone from a seven-day moving average of cases of less than 300 a day to now more than 1,000 a day. Hospitalizations statewide went from from 120 to 450 in the past 30 days.
“It’s very alarming to us because we haven’t seen cases like this since October of 2020,” said Polk County Health Department spokeswoman Nola Aigner Davis. “We are surging again.”
Des Moines area hospitals had 125 COVID-19 patients on Monday, up from 109 a week ago and positive tests show the trend of new cases isn't slowing. Davis said the county saw 340 positive cases over the weekend.
University Hospitals in Iowa City had 45 COVID-19 patients up from 13 at the beginning of August. Included in the current patients are six children.