In ARC of Iowa v. Reynolds (No. 21-3268), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the grant of a preliminary injunction of an Iowa law prohibiting mask requirements in schools, but reversed with regard to the scope of the injunction. The court remanded the case for the injunction to be retailored to apply only to the schools and districts attended by plaintiffs’ children.

Background and Procedure

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic during the 2019-20 school year, many Iowa schools conducted remote-only learning. When in-person learning resumed, the state’s education department recommended that masks be worn in schools, and many school districts imposed mask mandates. In May 2021, the Iowa governor signed a law prohibiting schools and school districts from requiring anyone to wear a mask on school grounds unless otherwise required by law. The schools and districts that had enacted mask mandates, ended them.

Plaintiffs are the parents of children with serious disabilities that place them at heightened risk of severe injury or death from COVID-19. Some of the plaintiffs had sent their children to school while the mask mandates were in place; many kept the children home after the mask mandates ended, but some “were forced to send their children despite the risks due to no viable alternative.” Plaintiffs sued the governor, the director of the Iowa Department of Education, and the 10 school districts attended by their children, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. In early October 2021, Senior Judge Robert Pratt ruled that the law violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and §504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and issued a preliminary injunction completely enjoining the law. After the injunction, 24 school districts reimposed mask requirements (affecting approximately 30% of students in the state).

The governor and director of the education department appealed the preliminary injunction, arguing that plaintiffs lacked standing and failed to exhaust their administrative remedies before suing, and that the district court abused its discretion in granting the injunction.

The Eighth Circuit, in a 2–1 opinion written by Judge Benton, affirmed the grant of the injunction except for its scope, holding that 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.”

First, the Eighth Circuit concluded that plaintiffs had demonstrated an adequate injury in fact, fairly traceable to the challenged law, and likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. See Sarasota Wine Mkt., LLC v. Schmitt, 987 F.3d 1171, 1178 (8th Cir. 2021) (stating requirements of Article III standing). With regard to injury, the Eighth Circuit concluded that the law “forces [the children] to forgo critical educational opportunities, including in-person learning with their peers.” Without the protections of mask requirements, plaintiffs faced an “either/or” choice between exclusion from in-person learning or taking greater health risks than their peers. For example, a child at issue has severe breathing problems, must use a ventilator when sleeping, and is at higher risk of severe complications if he were to contract COVID-19. After the enactment of the law prohibiting mask requirements, “the vast majority of students and staff did not wear masks at his school[.]” But because the school stopped offering remote classes, the child had no choice but to attend school and risk his health. For another example, a different child has asthma, which presents a higher risk for severe illness if COVID-19 is contracted, and sometimes needs for the school nurse to administer his inhaler. After the end of the masking requirements, the school nurse refuses to wear a mask when interacting with the child, as does the student’s teacher.

With regard to traceability, the Eighth Circuit concluded that plaintiffs’ injuries are the foreseeable result of the threatened enforcement of the law:

[T]he schools and school districts have gone without mask mandates because of the law and the threat of enforcement, and Plaintiffs have been forced to choose between their children’s lives and the quality of their education. Plaintiffs have shown traceability because their injuries are caused by “the predictable effect of Government action on the decisions of third parties.”

(Quoting Dep’t of Commerce v. New York, 139 S. Ct. 2551, 2566 (2019)).

With regard to redressability, the Eighth Circuit found that requirement satisfied because (1) many schools dropped their mask requirements only when the law became effective, (2) some of plaintiffs’ schools previously had mask requirements to ensure the safety of their children, and (3) two dozen schools responded to the injunction against law prohibiting masking requirements by implementing mask requirements.

Second, the Eighth Circuit held that the exhaustion requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not apply to plaintiffs’ claims. Under Frye v. Napoleon Community Schools, 137 S. Ct. 743, 752 (2017), IDEA requires exhaustion only if a suit seeks relief for a denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE). The Eighth Circuit concluded that “the gravamen of Plaintiffs’ Complaint does not seek relief from a denial of a FAPE.” Instead, “Plaintiffs seek authority for their school districts to require mask-wearing in schools that would ensure a safe school environment for their children.” (Judge Erickson disagreed with the majority on the issue of exhaustion and dissented, deeming the injunction premature.)

Third, the Eighth Circuit determined that plaintiffs met each of the four requirements for a preliminary injunction: (1) they are likely success on the merits; (2) they are likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief; (3) the balance of equities tips in their favor; and (4) an injunction is in the public interest. With regard to the first factor, the court concluded that the Rehabilitation Act “likely requires mask wearing as a reasonable accommodation for plaintiffs’ disabilities.” The court therefore did not address how other federal statutes apply to plaintiffs’ claims. The Eighth Circuit also rejected the argument that the Iowa state law is preempted by federal disabilities law because the former allows mask requirements to comply with the latter. The Eighth Circuit quickly addressed the remaining three factors, concluding that all four factors favored plaintiffs.

Although plaintiffs are entitled to a preliminary injunction, the Eighth Circuit held that the injunction as ordered by the district court was overbroad because it was not tailored to remedy plaintiffs’ harms. “By barring [defendants] from enforcing [the Iowa law] 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 … . To remedy Plaintiffs’ injury, an injunction is necessary only as applied to their schools and districts.”

John M. Baker and Katherine M. Swenson are attorneys at Greene Espel PLLP in Minneapolis.