116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Linn County officials are urging local school boards to mandate face coverings for students and staff, regardless of their vaccination status, after discovering what they think is a loophole in the Iowa law banning mask mandates.
A state law 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.
“Verbiage in the Iowa law suggests (schools) may actually have the ability to mandate face coverings,” Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker, a member of the county Board of Health, said in asking schools to consult their legal counsel on the issue.
Last week, the Linn County Board of Health sent a letter to Cedar Rapids school board members urging them to require all children, teachers and staff to wear a mask while in school buildings regardless of their vaccination status.
“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.’ ” the letter stated. “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.”
“We owe it to our children to get this right and keep them safe,” Walker said during a news briefing Wednesday. “Children under 12 years old are not yet eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and they are still going to our schools.”
Last week, 605 new COVID-19 cases were reported in Linn County, and the seven-day positivity rate is almost 15 percent, said Dr. Pramod Dwivedi, Linn County Public Health director. The virus’ delta variant, which is highly transmissible, is the only strain being detected in Linn County.
“We are seeing more cases of COVID-19 reported daily than were recorded in an entire week in July,” Dwivedi said.
In August, 13 people died of COVID-19, the most deaths seen in months in Linn County. As of Tuesday, 45 Linn County residents were hospitalized for COVID-19.
While the COVID-19 vaccine is effective in protecting against severe illness and death, only 55 percent in Linn County residents are fully vaccinated, he said.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the delta variant spread to 50 percent of students in a classroom after they were exposed to COVID-19 by an unvaccinated and unmasked teacher, Dwivedi said.
With about 15 percent of community members 11 years old and younger not yet eligible for vaccination, Dwivedi said it’s important to continue mitigation efforts of universal mask wearing, social distancing and enhanced sanitation.
An outbreak of COVID-19 in schools might mean parents staying home with sick children, missing out on wages and disrupting the workforce and local economy, Walker said.
Earlier this week, the Linn County Treasurer’s Office closed to walk-in customers until further notice due to a staffing shortage caused by COVID-19 cases and exposures.
“The last thing our small businesses need is another massive disruption in the economy,” Walker said.
Walker said Linn County residents have a “responsibility” to each other to wear a mask to protect themselves and those around them. He hopes people who object to wearing a mask could “find it in their heart to make a small sacrifice on behalf of the whole.”
Cedar Rapids schools to contact trace
In another development, the Cedar Rapids school district will begin contact tracing and students or staff members with COVID-19 symptoms or a positive test are required to isolate for 10 days beginning Thursday.
Schools also will no longer hold all-school assemblies, although assemblies by grade level may occur. All preschool home visits will be virtual or outdoors. And no volunteers or parent visitors will be allowed at elementary schools.
This is a shift from the district’s previous protocol where a school notified all families in the school if there was a positive COVID-19 case and let families choose whether to quarantine their students for 14 days to monitor for symptoms.
The district cited a recent escalation in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as the reason for the change. As of Monday, the district was reporting 20 students and six staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 in 13 of its 32 schools.
When Linn County Public Health or a parent, guardian or staff member communicates a positive case to the district, school nurses will assist with contact tracing.
In elementary schools, families will be notified if a staff or student tests positive for COVID-19 in their classroom.
In middle and high schools, a positive case will be communicated by grade level, or families will be notified if a staff or student tests positive in a classroom that is self-contained where the students do not rotate from class to class.
Although the district cannot mandate mask wearing except on school buses, it is asking everyone in schools to wear a mask, even if they are vaccinated, frequently wash their hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, use hand sanitizer and socially distance as much as possible.
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