Guest Columnist

A prescription needed for public schools in Iowa

Desks are spaced out in a first grade classroom at Madison Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020
Desks are spaced out in a first grade classroom at Madison Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

When we’re sick, we usually go see a doctor to see what’s wrong. We describe the symptoms, the doctor checks us over and provides a diagnosis. Most of the time, if we listen, and finish the prescription, there’s a pretty good chance we recover and go on with our lives. It’s only if the disease doesn’t have a cure or if we ignore the symptoms, that things become fatal.

Iowa is sick.

And one of the prime symptoms is our public-school system that Gov. Kim Reynolds has mishandled.

Here is a prescription from a public education advocate for dealing with the spread of COVID-19 by attacking one of the prime symptoms. There are only four doses to the prescription, but all matter. The governor can immediately take all four to help heal public schools.

First, the governor should spend a portion, of the federal COVID-19 relief money, that she hasn’t already spent on her staff, to implement rapid and random testing on site in public schools, much like in colleges and universities.

Right now, if a student or educator is exposed or symptomatic, they must go through the local public health department and then wait a minimum of two days, if there isn’t a backlog, for results. It would be much safer if there was a rapid test done on site that could give results in minutes not days. They are available, but public schools lack the funding needed.

The second dose of the prescription is the COVID-19 reporting requirements for school districts. Right now, positive cases are reported to local county health departments with little consistency in how the public receives the information. Unlike nursing homes where there is statewide data, I’m afraid public schools are being treated like packinghouses instead of essential public entities.

A vacuum is always filled. And in this case the vacuum is filled two ways. First with rumors not based on accurate data, and secondly by independent data collectors scrambling to make sense of elusive numbers. We need accurate data about schools and that is a state responsibility.

The third dose is the governor giving back local control. Quite simply moving to a hybrid plan or totally remote needs to be a local decision based on what is happening locally. Yes, we need to know what the numbers are statewide, but local school boards need to make their decisions based on science, not on some political, artificial, arbitrary requirements.

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The final dose of the prescription are masks. Medical professionals have beaten their heads against the statewide mask mandate wall our Governor has erected, but it is time for her to at least mandate masks in public schools. This move will provide consistency within school buildings.

While the decision to switch to hybrid or total local remote learning should be a local decision, this one should be a statewide mandate. The reason is simple. Masks have been proven to reduce the spread, not just for one school in one community, but for all of Iowa, and that is essential for getting our economy back.

In districts not requiring masks, one classroom might require masking up while the next doesn’t. It doesn’t work. This lack of consistency will ignite the spread of the virus and cause whole districts to shutter.

If we can control the spread of COVID-19 in schools, we will go a good distance to having our communities recover. What we can’t do is refuse to finish the prescription because we’re suddenly feeling good one day. We tried that in April and the virus exploded in the summer, and left Iowa sick again.

Bruce Lear of Sioux City retired after a 38 year career in public schools. BruceLear2419@gmail.com

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