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In early August of 2021, Frances Parr’s husband came home from work.
“We are suing the governor,” she said.
It was news her husband took in stride. “He’s pretty easygoing,” Parr told me in an interview.
In May of 2021, Iowa lawmakers passed a law preventing schools from mandating masks. The law was passed in the GOP-controlled legislature in the middle of the night and signed by the governor, Kim Reynolds, just hours after it passed.
Parr is a 55-year-old out-of-work mechanical engineer and the mother of 6-year-old twin boys. Sending them back to school in a pandemic as cases surge, and schools legally cannot enforce mask-wearing, was out of the question for Parr.
Parr is one of the millions of American women forced out of work by the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis.
“I’ve been looking for jobs, and I had been interviewing pretty seriously for some. But I would have had to go back to the office, and I can’t do that with my kids at home and the schools are unsafe. Everyone has failed us. And I’m forced to pick between keeping my kids safe and getting a job.”
In other states with laws preventing mask mandates, rogue school boards, school districts, and city councils have openly defied those laws. But not here in Iowa. A school board member told me on background that board members were afraid of the backlash from parents or losing funding from the state in response.
“After the law passed, I was looking around waiting for anyone to challenge it. I was waiting for a white knight, but no one was coming. So, I did what I had to do.”
So, Parr decided she’d sue. She found a lawyer, Dan McGinn, at McGinn, Springer and Noethe in Council Bluffs, who thought she had a case.
Parr is a straight talker. She gets to the point and doesn’t back down from a fight. She jokes, “I’m not passive aggressive, I’m just aggressive.” So, Parr doesn’t care about the backlash. “I’m old now. Too old to care what people think. I just want to protect my kids.”
In addition to Reynolds, the lawsuit names the Director of Education Ann Lebo and Public Health Director Kelly Garcia. At its core, the lawsuit states that the Iowa Department of Public Health and Education and the governor all have a duty to protect the health and the well-being of Iowans. And that duty is not being met by preventing mask mandates.
Just days after Parr’s lawsuit against the governor, another lawsuit was filed by parents of students with disabilities and disabilities rights groups. That lawsuit argues that without mask mandates students with health conditions and disabilities that are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 are being forced out of school because of the lack of a mask mandate.
“I was looking around waiting for anyone to challenge it. I was waiting for a white knight, but no one was coming. So, I did what I had to do.”
Parr grew up in Syracuse, New York, and moved to Iowa in 2007 with her husband when she took a job at GE. She said for many years her husband was a Republican and she voted Republican too in her first election.
For a long time, she and her husband, Jason, lived in unincorporated Mills County, just outside of Pacific Junction, until a flood in 2019 destroyed her home. Heavy rain and snowmelt caused the levees of the Missouri River to break, and the Parr’s 100-year-old home was filled with 9 feet of flood water.
Parr watched a press conference about the flood with Reynolds and Sens. Ernst and Grassley. When she didn’t see her congresswoman, Cindy Axne, at the conference, she called the congresswoman’s office and was told that Axne had not been invited.
At the time, a $19.1 billion disaster aid package with money for flood-damaged Iowans had passed the Senate but was blocked by House Republicans.
“People’s homes were destroyed, and they’re just playing politics!” Parr was angry. So she began inviting politicians to view her home, and soon Democratic candidates for president Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar were touring her home.
Parr later ran for supervisor but lost in a five-person race for one open seat.
“I’ve always been a bit of a rabble-rouser,” said Parr, “but I’m old now, and I don’t have time to waste.”
Parr is also a firm believer in masks. In November 2020, Parr contracted COVID-19. “That stuff is nasty,” she said. Parr tried to quarantine from her family, but that’s impossible when you are the primary caretaker of two boys. (While we talked, Parr had to go outside because a nerf battle was going on.) But she said she always wore a mask, and the rest of her family stayed healthy.
“We know how to keep kids safe. We have the tools; schools just can’t use them because of the law. So until kids can get vaccinated, we have to protect them,” said Parr. “And now there is the Delta variant coming.”
A hearing for Parr’s lawsuit takes place on Thursday, September 9. And Parr feels cautiously optimistic. She just wants to get her boys back to school, so she can get back to work.
Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email, sent on Wednesdays, which includes interviews, essays, and original reporting. The Friday email is a weekly round-up of dinguses, drinks, and links. On Monday I have a subscribers-only open thread where we discuss politics, food, dogs, our bodies, and more.