116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Concerned parents and educators pleaded Thursday with the Iowa State Board of Education to ask the governor to rescind a new law banning school districts from requiring masks in classrooms as COVID-19 cases again are spreading quickly just as the academic year nears.
State Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, told the board it could ask the Iowa Legislature to “use common sense during a pandemic” and allow local districts to decide themselves whether to require their students wear masks.
In late May, the Republican-led Legislature adopted House File 847, which among other things prohibited locally elected school boards from mandating their students or staff wear masks in district facilities. The bill’s managers said they brought the measure forward because hundreds of constituents had asked to be freed from governments imposing on their freedoms. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds immediately signed the bill into law.
“The vaccine remains our strongest tool to combat COVID-19, which is why we are going to continue to encourage everyone to get the vaccine,” Reynolds said after the board meeting in an email to The Gazette. “I am proud that we recently put new laws in place that will protect Iowans against unnecessary government mandates in our schools and local governments. As I have throughout this pandemic, I trust Iowans to do the right thing and make the decisions about what’s best for themselves and their family.”
While students are free under the new law to wear masks or not, no one under 12 is yet eligible yet to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. That means the vast majority of elementary school students cannot be vaccinated against the disease. While medical experts say children seldom experience severe COVID-19 symptoms, they can spread the disease to others who are more vulnerable.
Sara Willette of Ames, who has been tracking COVID-19 data in Iowa since the start of the pandemic, said over 26,000 kids and school staff tested positive for the virus during the 2020-21 school year — “a year where we had a mask mandate.”
The delta variant of COVID-19, which was first identified in Iowa in May, is even more contagious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in an internal document obtained by the Washington Post that it’s as contagious as the chickenpox and can spread faster than the common cold and influenza.
“We’re looking at schools going dark quickly, staff dying and students and family members getting sick,” Willette said.
Willette, who has an antibody deficiency that makes it so her body can't protect her from disease, believes if she contracted COVID-19 it would kill her.
Jesse Richardson-Jones, a mother of two elementary school children in Des Moines, told the board that requiring all students to wear masks this fall is the “safest option.”
“We still do not know the long-term consequences of COVID-19 for our kids,” she said. “The delta variant has changed the war on COVID, and we must consider every weapon at our disposal to fight it.”
Hannah Groos, a student member of the state board and a senior at Norwalk High School in Norwalk, said the speakers’ comments should be addressed before the board’s next scheduled meeting in September — after the school year has already started.
Groos said the mask issue is “very timely” and if the board waits too long members won’t be able to address it.
The Board of Education — which is appointed by the governor — did not otherwise address the public comments, and no item on the meeting agenda Thursday dealt with COVID-19 strategies in schools this fall.
School leaders encouraging masks
Leaders in the Clear Creek Amana Community School District are encouraging students and staff to wear masks and, if eligible, to get vaccinated.
“COVID-19 cases are increasing in Iowa … this could get out of hand pretty quickly,” said Joel Brown, Clear Creek Amana interim superintendent. “It’s important for people to get vaccinated and mask up.”
Brown said he would like the law banning districts from requiring masks to be rescinded and local control be restored to school boards. Brown said he doesn’t like wearing a mask — “I like seeing people’s smiles” — but he is going to set an example by wearing one.
“What is history going to write about this country in this era?” Brown asked. “How in the world did the COVID-19 vaccine become a political issue? This is about life and death.”
Clear Creek Amana will continue to update its public COVID-19 dashboard — which reports how many students and staff have tested positive — at least weekly.
The district is trying to get clarification from the Iowa Department of Education to see if it can mandate mask-wearing on school buses, in accordance with federal law. Earlier this week, Iowa City schools announced they will require mask-wearing on school buses.
In a survey the Clear Creek Amana district sent to families last month, 313 students indicated they would be interested in a mask-only classroom. But Brown said the district realized mask-only classrooms were impractical. The district would need more space and more teachers.
Instead, it is contracting with Edgenuity, an online curriculum, to provide virtual learning to those who need it.
Those who test positive for COVID-19 will be required to quarantine for 10 days. If a person comes into contact with someone who tested positive, there is no requirement to quarantine, Brown said.
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