GRIMES, IA — It’s a hot-button issue that’s sparked charged debate at school board meetings around the country: masks in schools.
Some states have passed laws prohibiting mandated masking, but disability rights groups are mounting legal challenges to those laws. They argue that these bans leave children who are too young to be vaccinated, have disabilities, or have underlying health conditions unprotected.
Iowa mom Nancy Baker Curtis’ 6-year-old son, Charlie, has a genetic condition that’s left him unable to speak. He needs assistance to get around.
“We don't really know what that means for his future,” she said. “He's diagnosed with intellectual and physical disabilities.”
He’s also immunocompromised. The combination puts him at a higher risk for severe illness or even COVID-19 mortality.
“Everything goes into his mouth, and so, it's just really hard for Charlie to be able to communicate to us if he's not feeling well,” said Curtis. “It's not if he'll get COVID, more when he'll get COVID. And so, we really need Charlie to be vaccinated before that happens.
But this past spring, the Iowa state legislature passed House File 847. It restricted local school districts from mandating face masks be worn in schools.
“It just really was upsetting. I felt as though my rights as a parent had been stripped away,” said Curtis.
Last month, 11 parents of children with disabilities and disability rights groups filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Iowa law.
“Bans on mask mandates in schools violate federal law—the Americans with Disabilities Act by essentially excluding students with disabilities from being able to attend school in person safely,” said Shira Wakschlag, senior director of legal advocacy and general counsel at the Arc.
They’ve been working closely with the ACLU and the families on the Iowa lawsuit.
“It could certainly have impacts beyond just Iowa, and there have been a couple of other federal courts at this point that have also ruled favorably for students,” said Wakschlag.
The U.S. Department of Education has opened up seven civil rights investigations into states where masks have been banned or restricted, including in Iowa. Texas, Florida, Utah, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and South Carolina are also on that list.
Federal courts have already blocked some of these state bans.
In Iowa, a preliminary injunction allowed some districts to implement mask mandates while the lawsuit progresses.
Wakschlag also points to guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC’s recommendation of universal indoor masking in schools regardless of vaccination status.
“We believe that that benefits everyone,” said Wakschlag. “But in particular, it also benefits students with disabilities who literally would have to choose between life or death or serious health repercussions to attend school.”
Charlie’s school is now working with his family, and he’s returned to in-person learning. The kindergartner is not able to wear a mask and relies on those around him at school to keep him safe.
For now, Curtis takes comfort in knowing that her little boy, with his disarming smile, is being looked out for.
“Every day I pass my most important gift off to an amazing group of educators and support specialist associates that love him,” she said. “And I am so lucky to have this.”