116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Schools are approaching “triage” as districts struggle to find creative solutions to keep classrooms functioning with record-high numbers of employee absences as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in Eastern Iowa.
The Iowa City Community School District saw its highest rate of employee absences on Jan. 5, with over 13 percent of staff out sick, including 20 percent of paraeducators and 14 percent of nutrition services staff. By comparison, the districts rate of employee absence typically hovers around 7 to 9 percent.
“The sobering reality is omicron will significantly impact our workforce,” Superintendent Matt Degner said during a school board meeting Tuesday.
Parents and teachers in the Cedar Rapids Community School District spoke during a school board meeting Monday in support of the district’s decision to maintain its mask requirement. This is in contrast to the past few months of school board meetings where the majority of people speaking during public comment were those protesting the mask mandate.
Cedar Rapids and Iowa City schools are requiring students, staff and visitors to wear masks in buildings during school hours. Other districts including Linn-Mar and College Community schools ended their mask requirements this month since the COVID-19 vaccine has been available for 5- to 11-year-olds for over 60 days.
A new Iowa law that prohibits school districts from imposing mask mandates is being challenged in an appeals court after a federal judge prevented the law from being enforced. If that restraining order is changed or lifted, masks will not be required.
“If masks stopped being mandated, it’s going to get bad again, cases will rise and more and more students will be gone and teachers won’t be able to teach because there are too many students missing,” said Cordy Alpers, 16, a sophomore at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids.
Schools are trying to remain “open and operational,” said Degner, the Iowa City superintendent, but staff absences are limiting the ability to deliver learning to students.
Schools have already been sharing substitute teachers between buildings and combining classrooms to help cover a shortage of teachers. The next step could be asking district officials to substitute in schools, or even closing school until enough staff can return to work.
Kennedy High School Japanese teacher Dan Carolin said Monday during the Cedar Rapids school board meeting that although mask wearing is an inconvenience, it’s what’s best for him, the students and his colleagues.
“One of my favorite parts of my job is to see the smile on my students’ faces as I teach them and try to set up a comfortable and safe environment in my classroom,” Carolin said. “Sometimes as an adult and child you have to do some things you don’t want to because it’s what’s good for you and the greater community.”
Carolin, who lived and taught in Japan for a while, said mask wearing is normalized there during cold and flu season. People wear it as a courtesy to each other if they are sick and to prevent themselves from getting sick.
“It’s a common courtesy, like saying please and thank you,” he said.
Tanya Street, mother to Kennedy High School student Carly Burgess, 17, attended the Cedar Rapids school board meeting for the first time Monday to show her support for the requirement.
Street, who is self-employed, said she can’t afford to get sick, and she wants to do everything she can to keep her daughter healthy. Wearing a mask is “not just about you,” Street said. “It’s about loving thy neighbor.”
Lindsey Ellickson, whose child is in fifth grade at Johnson STEAM Academy, said the constant rotation of substitute teachers in and out of their classroom is hindering education. She also went to the school board meeting Monday in support of mask requirements. Although her family is vaccinated, she feels like it’s “inevitable” that they will get COVID-19.
“My kid has never cared about wearing a mask,” she said. “If I can do something so simple to protect someone else and potentially save someone else’s life, I will.”
Free testing site
A free COVID-19 testing site is open to all at Liberty High School, 1400 S. Dubuque St., North Liberty, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays and from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. Testing will be done by NOMI Health, based in Utah, which is partnering with the Iowa City Community School District.
The drive-through site is offering rapid antigen testing, which provides results in about 30 minutes, and PCR testing, which provides results within one to two days. To register in advance visit nomihealth.com/iowa. Those unable to register online can register at the site. There are no out-of-pocket costs, but those with insurance are asked to bring their insurance card.
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