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WEST DES MOINES — Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds fired back Thursday against threatened legal action by the Democratic Biden administration over the state’s ban on mask mandates in schools, saying she plans to “hold strong” in ensuring parents have freedom to choose how to keep their children safe and may challenge any federal action that might impose modification or jeopardize funds designed to help schools deal with the pandemic.
“We are doing our job; he needs to do his job,” Reynolds told reporters in response to President Joe Biden’s comments one day earlier indicating he expects the U.S. Department of Education to use its broad powers to deter states including Iowa from barring universal masking in classrooms.
The president directed U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to explore whether a civil rights law gives the federal government authority to overturn state bans on mask mandates in schools. “Unfortunately, as you’ve seen throughout this pandemic, some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures — that is, children wearing masks in school — into political disputes for their own political gain,” Biden said Wednesday, according to the New York Times, which was the first to report on the directive. “We are not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children.”
Biden’s directive prompted Cardona to put Iowa officials on notice that the new state law Reynolds signed in May “appears to restrict the development of local health and safety policies and is at odds” with the planning process as local school officials chart the return to fall semester classes later this month.
Cardona offered to partner with Iowa "to further our shared goals" of protecting students and educators, but noted federal officials will “closely review and monitor whether Iowa is meeting all of its federal fiscal requirements.”
“I think it’s incredible that he’s coming after me when we led the country in getting kids back in school, doing it safely and responsibly,” Reynolds told reporters Thursday. “We’ve done that basically from the beginning where he just basically paid lip service to children all across this country while kowtowing to the teachers’ union. And it is such a disservice and it is unconscionable what they are doing to those kids. And so we’re going to do what we’ve done and that is keep our kids in school. It went through the Legislature. We had elected officials representing Iowans all across this state that voted on that bill and I signed it into law. We’re doing what we need to do.”
The governor said state public health officials are monitoring COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and vaccination rates daily with plans to stand pat on Iowa’s back-to-school strategies, but would make adjustments if need be. However, she told reporters she gets positive feedback every day at the Iowa State Fair from parents concerned about the “social and emotional well-being” of their children as they face challenges to their educational experience.
“They literally have tears in their eyes, tears, when they come up to me and say, thank you, thank you for getting my kids back in school; thank you for not masking them up,” Reynolds said, challenging U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials to “justify” mask mandates. “And, the second thing that they (parents) always say to me is hold strong. I want you to hold strong, and here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to hold strong.”
Reynolds did not rule out legal action if the U.S. Education Department decides to investigate Iowa and other states that have banned local school boards from requiring that students and teachers wear masks.
“If we’ve got to go to court, we will do it,” the governor said.
Reynolds took umbrage at federal directives for states and at Biden’s stance that states should “at least get out of the way” of schools and educators taking steps to protect children in classrooms.
“I’ve been dealing with COVID for over a year and he needs to do his job,” Reynolds said. “He needs to address and get Americans out of Afghanistan, he needs to close that southern border.”
“We have a crisis at the border, a disaster in Afghanistan, and inflation is soaring. President Biden is failing on each of these issues, yet he is now launching an attack against governors like myself for trusting our people to decide what’s best for them. The president’s priorities are misplaced. I have had enough, and I know Iowans have, too,” she added.
During a stop Thursday in northeast Iowa, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, a Red Oak Republican, stood by her southwest Republican colleague, saying Reynolds and governors of every state should be allowed to maintain their jurisdictions without federal interference.
“I think the states and local leaders are the ones that should be making those determinations. The federal government should not be imposing mandates, especially when it comes to a mask mandate. That should not be done by the federal government. I draw the line there, the federal government should as well,” said Ernst.
However, Statehouse Democrats called Thursday on Reynolds to start listening to all parents and public health officials and to take three actions before children head back to the classroom.
State Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames, who also is chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville and House Democratic Leader Jennifer Konfrst of Windsor Heights demanded the GOP governor accept $95 million in federal funding to increase testing in schools that she had rejected; return to daily instead of weekly reporting to the public of positive cases and hospitalizations; and allow every K-12 school to follow the latest CDC guidelines — including masks and contact tracing.
Earlier this month, a group of parents rallied outside the Iowa Capitol building in protest of the statewide masking ban.
New data issued this week by the state Department of Public Health show COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to climb in Iowa, with 16 more confirmed deaths added to the 6,226 total of Iowans who have died of coronavirus since the disease arrived here in March 2020.
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James Q. Lynch of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.