Four in 10 Iowa school districts don't require masks, even where COVID-19 rates are surging
Superintendent Steve Grond oversees two northwest Iowa school districts in Sioux County, which has the state’s third-highest 14-day positivity rate at 25.3%, as of Sunday.
Partly because of the surging rate of positive coronavirus cases in Sioux and neighboring Lyon counties, the Boyden-Hull Community School District upgraded their mask recommendation to a mask requirement. As of last Tuesday, all students and staff must wear masks whenever they can not maintain six feet of social distance.
In nearby Hawarden, the West Sioux Community School District is staying their course. The district, which serves about 800 students on the Iowa-South Dakota border, still does not require masks.
“Different boards have different feelings,” Grond said. “I can’t necessarily speak for that, but my recommendation was the same to both — that masks should be required.” He noted there were more students in quarantine at Boyden-Hull than at West Sioux in recent weeks.
Nearly 40% of Iowa school districts don’t require masks for all students and staff, according to a study released this week by the Iowa State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. Even in counties like Sioux and Lyon, with positivity rates beyond what would allow schools to apply for state approval to temporarily go virtual, rural and urban districts alike have a range of policies in place.
But state officials have said masks can make a difference in schools. Last month, Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the state epidemiologist, said the state studied four school districts in Sioux County — three that did not require masks and one that did. The district with the mask requirement experienced less virus spread, Pedati said. The state has not identified the districts it evaluated.
The ISEA is calling on Gov. Kim Reynolds to embrace more stringent health protocols and has promised to support any educators who decide to resign or break their contracts for fear of returning to the classroom. The union is also tracking cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in Iowa’s public schools.
“At this stage in the pandemic, we know there is no wiggle room. This virus finds a way to spread,” said ISEA President Mike Beranek. “So, either you are serious about keeping students, school employees and your community safe, or you are not. The data is clear. Masking helps stop the spread.”
Health officials agree. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield told a Senate panel last month that a vaccine may not be available to the American public until summer or fall 2021 and masks are "the most important, powerful public health tool we have" – possibly even more effective than a vaccine.
The ISEA’s analysis of mask requirements included 339 school districts, Area Education Agencies and community colleges. Each was put into one of two categories: those that require masks for all students and staff (61%), and those that don’t (39%). Schools that only require masks under certain positivity rates or for certain grade levels were put in the latter category.
Relaxed guidance bolstered some educators’ commitment to masks
Grond, the northwest Iowa superintendent, said his belief that masks should be required in schools is in line with newly eased state guidelines on what to do in the case of close contact with a person infected with COVID-19.
Reynolds announced late last month that a 14-day quarantine is not necessary if both people wore masks during the encounter, calling it an incentive for schools to encourage their use.
That change led Newton Community School District, 40 miles east of Des Moines, to update its policy. After allowing all face coverings including gaiters and face shields, masks are now the only option and are required for all students and staff.
The district reduced its number of COVID-19 cases among students and staff from 10 on Sept. 8, the first day of school, to three as of Thursday, said Superintendent Tom Messinger. Jasper County’s 14-day positivity rate was 7.5% on Friday.
“I don't know exactly what to attribute our success to, but as I've been in our buildings, I know that all of our staff members have been working very hard to teach the importance of masks,” he said. “We don’t view it as a punishment, and we don’t make a huge deal out of it when somebody forgets. … It’s just become a way of life. When you walk into our buildings, you will not see students or staff members that don’t have their mask on.”
The relatively strict mask policy in Newton, a town of about 15,000, was established this summer by a large group of administrators who initially clashed over the idea.
But they found common ground by asking questions of and trusting the county’s public health department, said Messinger: “Whatever we did, we knew we had to make sure we were on the same page. We made the decision early on that we were going to follow the guidance from public health experts and the CDC.”
The same original disagreement among administration existed among Newton families, too. So, the district rallied community support by holding a virtual Q&A after a school board meeting, and a virtual town hall attended by hundreds of families.
“We didn’t make this into any type of debate,” he said. “We even said up front that we realize not everybody’s on the same page with it. But we did say we have a health and safety plan in place, and this is going to be the policy this year.”
The new guidance also prompted a change in Okoboji schools. The Okoboji school board voted unanimously this week to require masks for grades 1-12 as well as staff, the Dickinson County News reports. The district previously only recommended masks. Dickinson County's 14-day positivity rate was 12.3% on Friday.
In the metro, many students are still learning online and in hybrid models. For example, Southeast Polk will continue its hybrid model through Oct. 30, when the first quarter ends. When in-person-class is in session, staff and students are required to wear face coverings including masks, gaiters or face shields.
And after a monthslong showdown with Reynolds, Des Moines Public Schools will soon start returning to in-person classes. Preschools will start on Monday, followed by elementary schools on Oct. 19 and middle schools on Oct. 26. High school students will attend their first in-person classes on Nov. 10. Staff and students will be required to wear masks.
Two rural districts that require masks are online due to community spread
Just two districts in the state are exempt from the state’s 50% in-person learning requirement as of Friday. The Avoca-Hancock-Shelby-Tennant-Walnut Community School District and the Hamburg Community School District can use fully remote learning from Oct. 5-16, the Iowa Department of Education says.
When classes are in-person, both districts require masks wherever social distancing can’t be ensured.
In Hamburg, all staff and students were required to wear masks when entering and moving around the school, but could take them off in classrooms at their seats because their small class sizes of 10 to 12 students allow for social distancing. The district also checked temperatures as students boarded buses and entered buildings.
Hamburg Superintendent Mike Wells said school is just about the only place masks are worn in the southwest corner of Iowa. The district serves students from Fremont and Page counties, which have some of the highest 14-day positivity rates in the state at 18.7% and 20.1%, respectively, as of Sunday.
“I think a lot of peoples’ approach is that they think (the virus) is a hoax,” he said. “They don’t believe in it. They go home and hear that from their parents, and then they go to rodeos and horse shows and they’re not wearing masks.”
Wells said he supports and admires Reynolds, but deemed “asinine” the state’s relaxed guidance that people who were exposed to someone with COVID-19 do not need to quarantine if both parties wore masks.
“It’s kind of a disregard for kids and our staff’s health, because they’re not getting it when they’re wearing the mask. They’re getting it when they take the mask off in public and play sports,” he said. “We’re upset because we really have strict guidelines, and now we have two weeks of online learning because of what happens outside the school, we believe.”
One Hamburg teacher is battling COVID-19 in a local hospital, Wells said.
The district didn’t have any other positive cases until this week, he said. It is now reporting a total of eight Hamburg teachers and two students infected with COVID-19.
“In two weeks, we’ll come back … for maybe another 30 days, then the rest of us who don’t have it will get it,” he said. “I mean, I don’t know how we’re going to keep it out as long as we’re doing sports and around people who don’t think this is real.”
Shelby Fleig covers Des Moines city government for the Register. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-214-8933.
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