CORONAVIRUS

Linn County recommends face masks or shields, health screenings for school return despite state guidance

38-page report details steps specific to classrooms, other school-based activities

Clinical services supervisor Heather Meador of Linn County Public Health poses for a photo April 20 in front of the Harr
Clinical services supervisor Heather Meador of Linn County Public Health poses for a photo April 20 in front of the Harris Building in Cedar Rapids. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — As schools reopen, Linn County Public Health officials are recommending students and staff wear face coverings or masks and undergo health screenings before entering a school facility or boarding a school bus.

The county guidance, published Thursday, differs with the state’s guidance, a two-page document published last month that recommended against requiring face coverings or health screenings.

School districts in Linn County turned to local public health officials in response to the Iowa Department of Education’s “scant” guidance, said John Speer, chief administrator of the Grant Wood Area Education Agency.

“We wanted to have public health experts weigh in and give us some of the best public health based advice we could,” said Speer, whose agency provides services to schools in a seven-county area, including Linn. “That’s why we’re so appreciative of this plan — it’s very detailed, very specific, it gives graduated measures districts can take to help keep students safe.”

The county’s 38-page health guidance provides considerations for three scenarios for the upcoming school year: in-person learning, virtual learning and a hybrid of both face-to-face and distanced learning.

It does not make a recommendation on which scenario school districts should choose. Districts and school boards are making those decisions in the coming weeks.

The Cedar Rapids Community School District has not yet announced its plans for the fall, though the district said last week it would require masks or shields for all students and staff if they return to buildings. The Iowa City Community School District, in Johnson County, chose Tuesday to resume online-only classes until at least October.

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In any reopening model, county health officials’ nine key recommendations are: ill staff and students stay home; frequent hand-washing; covering coughs and sneezes; wearing face coverings and masks; at least 6 feet of physical distancing at all times, including in classrooms, cafeterias and on school buses; no physical contact between students; discontinued use of communal items or disinfecting between uses; frequent disinfection of frequently touched surfaces; and symptom screenings both at home and at school.

It also provides measures specific to meal services, recess, physical education, music classes, arts classes, library use and athletics.

Speer said the cost to districts of implementing the recommended public health measures “will not be an insignificant amount of money,” and funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act are unlikely to cover it.

“It’s probably safe to say that any further mitigation activities that schools take will probably come out of their general fund or other funds that they’ve already had,” Speer said. “I believe most districts will have, are have already, used their CARES funds from the spring.”

The county guidance allows for districts to choose which measures to implement, he added.

Throughout the report, public health officials measure the risk of various options schools can take as students and faculty return to buildings in the fall.

High risk behavior, for example, would be no physical distance between students and continued sharing of communal items. Low risk behavior includes steps such as creating cohort classrooms and requiring face coverings.

In the event of a suspected COVID-19 case within a building, the guidance recommends a dedicated isolation area for symptomatic individuals, in addition to identifying multiple emergency contacts for students who need an immediate ride home and establishing a protocol for triaging students.

While state and local public health officials would be notified in cases of confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff and residents, Linn County Public Health Clinical Services Supervisor Heather Meador said it is ultimately up to school officials to decide next steps.

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“It would be ultimately up to the school to decide whether to close for a period of time or not,” Meador said during a virtual news conference.

Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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