116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Despite a state law against school mask mandates, the Linn County Board of Health is urging Cedar Rapids schools to require all children, teachers and staff to wear masks while in school buildings regardless of their vaccination status.
The state measure prevents school districts, cities and counties from requiring face coverings to be worn to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The ban was passed in May by Republicans in the Iowa Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds. But in a letter last week to Cedar Rapids school board members, the Linn County health panel argued there may be an exception.
“The Iowa House File 847, (page) 15, states school authorities may use facial covering when it is ‘necessary for a specific extracurricular or instructional purpose.’ In the current situation when new cases, hospitalizations and deaths associated with COVID-19 are increasing in our community, the board of health deems it necessary to allow the occupants of school buildings to wear a face covering.”
☛ Related article: Iowa’s school mask mandate ban faces federal civil rights inquiry
There is “high community spread” of the COVID-19 delta variant, the health board said. A surge in infections “threatens” to overwhelm the health care system and impact schools.
“The transmission of the new delta variant is high in Linn County and is affecting everyone, including our children and adolescents,” the panel wrote. “In addition, vaccine coverage in Linn County remains below 60 percent. Our top priority remains the safety of our children in school buildings.”
Experts estimate that roughly 70 to 85 percent of the population will need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity against COVID-19.
The letter was signed by members of the board of health, including Linn County Public Health Director Pramod Dwivedi and Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker.
As of Monday, Cedar Rapids schools reported there have been 20 students who tested positive for COVID-19 in 13 schools. Six staff members have tested positive at six schools. The first day of school was Monday, Aug. 23.
Superintendent Noreen Bush said the district has not received guidance from the Iowa Department of Education on the Linn County panel’s interpretation.
“Our school district is communicating to families if there are positive cases in schools,” Bush said in an email to The Gazette. “We are reviewing our cases from last week and are considering our next steps with quarantining efforts and contact tracing.
“As we have practiced in the past 18 months, we have adjusted and responded when given new information and current state of COVID-19 data,” Bush said. “If we make adjustments, we will communicate with our families and staff accordingly.”
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into Iowa and four other states to explore if banning mask mandates discriminates against students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 by preventing them from safely accessing in-person education.
“The Department has heard from parents from across the country — particularly parents of students with disabilities and with underlying medical conditions — about how state bans on universal indoor masking are putting their children at risk and preventing them from accessing in-person learning equally,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a news release.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart last week said he had considered issuing another mask mandate in the city to curb the spread of COVID-19, even though the state law bans such local orders.
Hart said he consulted with the Cedar Rapids Community School District and offered to “take the sword” for a mandate if school officials would follow it.
During an Aug 23 Cedar Rapids school board meeting, board President Nancy Humbles read a statement saying that breaking the law by mandating masks in schools would “result in consequences,” including putting administrators at risk of losing their license and putting the district at risk of losing its accreditation, which could mean a loss of funding.
“As a board, we are asking you to do as a community what will keep our students and staff safe,” Humbles said. “Wear a mask, maintain social distancing and wash your hands frequently. These strategies have been proven to be effective.”
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