Federal Disability Law Likely Requires Schools to Mandate Masks

Start at Reynolds v. Arc of IowaThe Eighth Circuit’s (Judges Duane Beton and Jane Kelly) today ruled in favor of:

Plaintiffs, the Arc of Iowa and Iowa parents whose children have serious disabilities that place them at heightened risk of severe injury or death from COVID-19, sued to enjoin enforcement of Iowa’s law prohibiting mask requirements in schools…. Plaintiffs are entitled to a preliminary injunction because mask requirements are reasonable accommodations required by federal disability law to protect the rights of Plaintiffs’ children….

Many schools in Iowa switched to remote learning as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. When they later reopened for in-person classes, the Iowa Department of Education recommended mask-wearing at  schools, and many districts imposed broad mask mandates. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed Iowa Code Section 281.31 on May 20, 2021. It prohibits school and district officials from mandating that students wear masks at school, except as required by law. In response, all Iowa schools and school districts with mask mandates ended them….

Plaintiffs have a good chance of winning on the merits, as mask requirements represent a reasonable modification. Failure to offer this accommodation by schools is likely to violate the Equal Protection Clause. [Rehabilitation Act]. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act states, “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States … shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

“[P]If they don’t make reasonable accommodation to allow people to access their programs, ublic bodies can discriminate against them. For a failure-to-accommodate claim under the RA, a plaintiff must show that (1) she is a qualified individual with a disability, (2) the defendant receives federal funding, and (3) the defendant failed to make a reasonable modification to accommodate her disability. “[A]Unreasonable accommodation means that it imposes unreasonable administrative or financial burdens or changes the fundamental nature of the program. …

Plaintiffs’ requested accommodation—that schools require some others wear masks—is reasonable. The request does not amount to a “fundamental change” in the schools’ educational programs. Before Section 280.31 was enacted, the Iowa Department of Education maintained “guidance on face coverings … in line with CDC” recommendations, and “defer[red]To local districts” about how to organize school activities. After the District Court enjoined defendants’ enforcement, Iowa public school enrolling approximately 30% of Iowa students imposed mask restrictions. Similar, schools attended by Plaintiffs imposed at most as many mask requirements around them before Section 280.31 was enacted. However, they reimposed these requirements after being enjoined.

While these schools have the right to impose some requirements on masks, they are not required to do so. Additionally, the Defendants do not have any evidence that masks would cause significant administrative and financial burdens.

It is also not unreasonable to require masks. The argument can be undermined first by the reality that certain Iowa schools have already made this a requirement. The Eighth Circuit ruled that it was reasonable to modify the requirements for third parties, without causing any harm to their health. First Data Res., Inc. (8th Cir. (9th Cir. 1999). (finding the employer had reasonable accommodation for an employee with sinus problems caused by environmental irritants. This included a ban on nail polish use in his department. Schools and the State have similar regulations, which include protective headwear as well as immunization. Check out Iowa Code §§ 280.10, 280.11 (requiring eye and ear protection in some classes); id. § 139A.8(2) (prohibiting enrollment in “elementary or secondary school in Iowa without evidence of adequate immunizations” against various communicable diseases). They are most likely to win their Rehabilitation Act claim because the accommodation requested by Plaintiffs is reasonable.

This Court does not need to consider whether Section 504(RA) requires plaintiffs to wear masks as a reasonable accommodation. [the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021] or Title II of the ADA applies to Plaintiffs’ claims….

The district court, however, did not tailor the present injunction to remedy Plaintiffs’ harms…. By barring Defendants … from enforcing Section 280.31 in all contexts, the court prevented them from enforcing Iowa’s law against schools that encounter no one with disabilities that require masks as a reasonable accommodation. This sweeps broader than the relief necessary to remedy Plaintiffs’ injuries and is an abuse of discretion….

Judge Ralph Erickson voted against on procedural grounds.