116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the first name of Cedar Rapids parent Michelle Breitwisch.
DES MOINES — Last school year, a social media-led, grassroots group of Iowa parents opposed to myriad COVID-19 mitigation strategies in schools persuaded Republican legislators and Gov. Kim Reynolds to write two new state laws addressing their complaints.
On Wednesday, another social media-led, grassroots group of Iowa parents took their pandemic complaints to the Iowa Capitol to call for an end to one of those laws: one that prohibits schools from mandating face masks if there is no such requirement from the state government.
The “Safe at School Sit-In” was held on a scorching morning on the Iowa Capitol grounds and attended by roughly 100 supporters. It was hosted by five Iowa mothers, and was the product of a movement that started out with a social media post.
Under the new law — which was adopted in the early morning hours of one of the final days of this year’s legislative session and signed into law just moments later — schools and local governments cannot have face mask requirements that exceed the state’s requirements. Because the state has no such requirement, Iowa school districts cannot have one either.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of their vaccination status or the degree of community spread.
Speakers at the rally, including parents and medical professionals, called on Reynolds to issue an executive order allowing districts to enact mask policies if they want.
“I have a message for Gov. Reynolds: If you are proud of your maskless mandate, you are not understanding science and how multilayered mitigation works. Please listen to the scientists that are speaking today,” said Michelle Breitwisch, a parent from Cedar Rapids and one of the organizers. “And I also say to you: Never underestimate the grit and fortitude of moms that know science and want a better future for our children, a future in which science directs our decisions, not politics or conspiracy theories. Because us moms won’t stop until science wins.”
In addition to demanding the change in order to preserve public health as the pandemic picks up steam again in Iowa, speakers said the new law breaks the promise of local control. Local school districts — not the state — should make a decision that is best for their schools and communities, the advocates argued.
In a statement issued by her spokesman, Reynolds argued the ultimate local control lies with parents.
“Parental control is local control and parents have the option to send their kids to school with a mask or not. As I have throughout this pandemic, I trust Iowans to do the right thing and make the decisions about what’s best for themselves and their family,” the statement said.
After roughly a half-year of precipitous decline thanks in large part to the availability of vaccines, new cases and hospitalizations have been increasing sharply over the past two months, according to state public health data.
The 214 Iowans hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Aug. 4 is roughly quadruple what it was two months ago and the highest since April. And the rolling, two-week average of daily new cases is seven times higher than it was just more than six weeks ago.
That state data is now updated for the public only once per week, instead of multiple times a day, under a change made by Reynolds’ administration.
If the virus is allowed to continue to spread, experts warn, other even more dangerous variants than the delta variant that’s driving this surge could emerge.
“If we continue to allow this to perpetuate, don’t use the masks that we know can stop this spread, we will see worse variants than the delta variant evolve, variants that can eventually become impervious to the mechanisms we currently use like the vaccines, like the masks to fight this pandemic,” said Megan Srinivas, an infectious disease physician and former Democratic candidate for the Iowa Legislature. “We’re on the verge of seeing something way worse than we have seen during the last 18 months.”
Tanya Keith, who attended the event, said another group is establishing a legal fund for any parents or districts that wish to sue the state over the mask law. Keith said donations are being accepted at iowahomerule.com.
The 2021-2022 school year starts the week of Aug. 23 for most school districts.