116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Masks will continue to be optional in Iowa’s non-public and private schools after legal experts determined a restraining order issued last week on a law banning mask mandates applies only to public schools.
Cedar Rapids Catholic schools, including Xavier High School, and Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City are among those still legally bound to the state law banning mask mandates, officials said.
Last week, the Archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools communicated that non-public schools still must comply with House File 847, which means Catholic schools are prohibited from enacting local mask mandates.
A federal judge a week ago issued an order preventing enforcement of the state law, adopted in May, that bars local school districts from requiring masks in their schools. The ruling came in a lawsuit brought against the law by parents of children who suffer medical conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 but who are too young to be vaccinated.
While Eastern Iowa’s two largest school districts — Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, representing more than 30,000 students — have reinstated a mask mandate for all students, staff and visitors. The Linn-Mar school board voted to require students in prekindergarten through sixth grade to wear masks. But some smaller area public school districts are waiting for a decision from their boards or have decided to forgo a mandate for now.
A legal expert, Sam Jones, a lawyer with Shuttleworth & Ingersoll in Cedar Rapids, said the archdiocese attorney is correct in determining that the order doesn’t apply to private schools — only public ones in Iowa.
But, he said, Judge Robert Pratt’s temporary restraining order creates questions about the state’s ability to enforce HF847 if a private school chooses to require masks for its students anyway.
Jones said any parties filing a lawsuit seeking to allow a mask mandate in a private school would have to have legal “standing” — meaning they would have to demonstrate how the law adversely affects or harms them or their family. If parents of private school students with respiratory issues, similar to ones cited in the Iowa public school lawsuit, challenged the law, he believed they would likely succeed.
Jones also said Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds should have serious questions about whether the law would be enforceable if she attempted to force a private school to not require masks if the private school argued the law violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and associated statues.
In an email to families last Wednesday, Regis Middle School Principal Josh Gredys said they are monitoring the situation closely.
“I understand this information may be applauded by some and deeply concerning to others,” Gredys wrote. “As has been the case throughout the pandemic, our school is committed to providing high quality spiritual and academic formation in a safe and nurturing environment.”
Regis is not seeing “high numbers” of positive COVID-19 cases for students or staff, Gredys said, and it is not impacting students as much in comparison with last year. The school is not publicly sharing the number of students or staff who have tested positive for the disease.
Xavier High School in Cedar Rapids has under a 2 percent positivity rate for COVID-19, Xavier communication director Nick Ireland said in an email to The Gazette. There are about 660 grades 9-12 students at Xavier.
Less than half who tested positive contracted the virus through school or a school activity, based on contact tracing by school nurses. The students who choose to wear a mask at school are wearing them “consistently and correctly,” Ireland said.
Joy Kelly, head of school at Regina Catholic Education Center, said they are bound by the law banning mask mandates. If the order were expanded to include non-public schools, Kelly said the school’s return-to-learn committee would meet to determine a recommendation on mask requirements, which the school board would then vote on. Regina’s committee was formed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is made up of staff, parents, administrators and medical professionals.
Regina leadership is encouraging its students and staff to get vaccinated if eligible and is strongly recommending wearing masks.
Less than six students and staff are positive for COVID-19, and less than six students and staff are in quarantine from exposure K-12 at Regina. There are about 858 students in the district.
“I think the important thing at this point in time is recognizing people are not going to agree on this issue, and unfortunately that puts school administrators and school boards in a precarious situation,” Kelly said. “Our primary concern is the health and well-being of students.”
Trinity Lutheran School, 1361 Seventh Ave. SW in Cedar Rapids, is “not having an issue with COVID-19” this year, Principal Mark Mueller said. The school, which serves over 230 PK-8 students, has not had any students or staff test positive since the beginning of the school year.
"I think each school should be able to decide what’s best for their environment and situation,“ Mueller said.
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