Plans for how students will return safely to school in the fall should include requiring face masks, ensuring social distancing and teaching proper hand washing, Iowa State Education Association officials said Wednesday, criticizing the state’s earlier guidance as “irresponsible.”
“When the Department of Education and the Department of Public Health released ambiguous and contradictory guidance, which had the potential to derail the progress of return to learn plans, we were frustrated and angry on behalf of the students and staff who are affected,” said ISEA President Mike Beranek during a virtual news conference.
The state Education Department last week released reopening school guidance that cautioned against face mask requirements for all staff and students. In a clarification Tuesday, officials said they do not recommend schools implementing a broad policy that requires face coverings for all students and staff because of health and safety, legal and training implications.
“What we need now is definitive leadership and guidance,” Beranek said. “With no clear direction at the federal level or state mandated guidelines, our local school districts are looking for clear guidance based in science and health.”
In addition to requiring face coverings, Beranek said, schools need to install floor markings and signage to help maintain physical distancing while navigating the school building, designate a single point of entry and exit and institute screening procedures for anyone entering the building.
Educators are flexible, he said, working with students who need frequent snacks to keep blood sugar at appropriate levels or making modifications for those who can’t sit still or don’t like bright lights.
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“It is insulting (for the Education Department) to write paragraphs to us about stigmatizing students for wearing or not wearing a mask,” Beranek said.
Before schools closed in March because of the pandemic, Beranek said mental health counselors were “woefully understaffed.” But he expects students to return this fall with a heightened level of anxiety.
When students return, schools need to first make sure they are healthy and safe until they can focus on learning, he said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has emphasized that confined, indoor spaces — like classrooms — are one of the highest risk places for transmission of the coronavirus, said Dr. Megan Srinivas, an infectious disease physician in Fort Dodge who participated in the news conference.
“Face coverings combined with eye protection and social distancing is the best way to reduce transmission. That’s the mantra we need as we open our schools,” Srinivas said.
Face shields are a good alternative for masks because they add eye protection and are more comfortable, she said.
Srinivas said when it comes to guidance for the coronavirus, it’s not about getting it perfect.
“It’s about teaching children how to do it. Even wearing (a mask) part of the time can reduce transmission and exposure so kids can stay in school,” she said.
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Dr. Alexandra Iannone, a pediatrician at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, said she expects patients to wear masks.
“If you give a kid an expectation and teach them how to do it, kids are capable of following directions a lot better than the (Department of Education) recommendations give them credit for,” Iannone said during the news conference.
School districts in the Cedar Rapids-Marion area on Wednesday promised more information in the coming weeks about how they will resume classes.
The Iowa City Community School District is requiring face masks or shields, with medical exemption, socially-distanced classroom configurations and plexiglass guards in high-density areas of the building, officials said Tuesday.
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