116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
This week the U.S. Department of Education announced it will investigate Iowa and four other states to determine if bans on school mask mandates amount to discrimination against students with disabilities. Those students face a higher risk of severe illness if exposed to COVID-19.
Normally, we’d be wary of federal intervention in Iowa education policy. But in this case the policy at issue is misguided, politically motivated and dangerous for students, staff and families.
In May, in the middle of the night, the Legislature passed and Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law prohibiting school districts and municipalities from enacting mask mandates. It was a political gift to a loud minority of conservative parents who see masks as an infringement on freedom.
Not even the fast-spreading delta variant sweeping across the state has changed the governor’s calculations. She responded to the federal investigation by accusing the Biden administration of picking a political fight with red state governors.
The governor does not like being second-guessed through edicts from above. But now she knows how it feels to be a school administrator or school board member prohibited from following the science-based guidance of the Centers for Disease Control to slow the spread of the virus. Instead, they must operate under rules dictated by the governor and her science-denying allies.
The governor to date has given no clear explanation why masks should not be mandated in schools, especially in settings with young children who can’t be vaccinated. Instead, she continues to repeat her mantra, that she trusts Iowans to “do the right thing.”
But what’s the right thing for disabled or immunocompromised kids, or students who have someone at home with an underlying medical condition? Reynolds has left these families with arduous, life and death decisions to make. She stresses the importance of in-person learning, but makes that learning potentially dangerous.
The Linn County Board of Health has urged local school districts to defy the law and require masks. On Tuesday a coalition of 20 groups also urged school districts in Johnson and Linn counties to adopt mask requirements.
But districts have declined to cross the governor. Their leaders likely saw what happened last year when Des Moines Public Schools faced punishment and lost funding after defying a Reynolds edict.
Fortunately, other public officials are not ignoring the CDC’s advice to wear masks indoors in counties where virus spread is high, which is nearly all of Iowa.
The Iowa Supreme has ordered the use of face coverings in courthouses. Libraries in Marion and Cedar Rapids have adopted masking requirements, which also extend to city facilities in Cedar Rapids.
It’s the right thing to do. It’s unfortunate that it might take federal intervention to force the governor to change course.
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