Do Iowa kids have to wear masks on school buses? It depends who one asks, though federal rule says yes.
It's up to Iowa school districts to determine whether they are in compliance with federal rules about masks on buses, according to state agencies — and those federal rules remain in place after the passage of the state's law banning mask mandates.
Last week, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a ban on mask mandates by schools and other local government authorities.
Some schools had already made masks optional before that, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends mask use for the remainder of the school year. After the CDC relaxed its guidance for people fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the interim director of the Iowa Department of Public Health on May 14 advised that schools and child care centers drop mask mandates.
In the Ames area, the shifts left the Ballard Community School District having made masks optional on buses as well as in its buildings, and the Ames Community School District citing a federal mandate to continue requiring masks when children ride school buses.
What does federal law say, and what have Iowa schools been told about it?
President Joe Biden in January issued an executive order that directed, per CDC guidelines, that masks be worn at airports, on commercial aircraft, trains, ferries and other public maritime vessels, intercity bus services and all other forms of public transportation as defined under a specific section of U.S. law.
Though the cited section of law excludes school buses from what's defined as "public transportation," the CDC about a week later issued a public health order, effective since February, that the agency says includes school buses in the forms of transportation where masks are required — for passengers and drivers, unless drivers are the only person on board.
Spokespeople for IDPH and the Iowa Department of Education advised the Tribune on Monday to refer to school districts for answers on whether masks can be required on school buses after Reynolds made law the state's prohibition on mask mandates.
IDPH spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand said districts and their legal counsel "are the best resource for review and guidance" on the issue, because "each district handles bussing differently."
State education department spokesperson Jim Flansburg acknowledged that the CDC's transportation order has not been amended or withdrawn, and that the department has received multiple inquiries about it, but Flansburg also referred further questions to school districts.
Last week, Jean Hessburg, spokesperson for the Iowa State Education Association, said school buses were not exempt from Iowa's new no-mask mandate law — but Hessburg only cited Biden's executive order and the federal law it cited, not the subsequent CDC order.
Iowa now has a patchwork of schools that are following federal rules and others who are not
The unresolved confusion about what the state's new law means for the federal rules regarding masks on buses has left school districts across the state taking different approaches to the issue.
The Urbandale, West Des Moines and Burlington districts all stopped requiring masks on buses last week, citing compliance with the new state law.
The Johnston Community School District said last week that the new law "prohibits school districts from requiring facial coverings to be worn, unless otherwise required by law to do so. This includes a student’s time on the school bus, if applicable."
The Iowa City and Cedar Rapids districts told their families last week they weren't sure if the new law applied to school buses, but were seeking additional guidance.
Iowa City's superintendent, Matt Degner, told families and staff: "Until we have clear guidance, we are strongly encouraging both students and staff to continue wearing face coverings while on school buses to help protect those that are still vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus."
The Council Bluffs Community School District said after the CDC relaxed its guidelines for the fully vaccinated but before the new Iowa law was signed that students would no longer be expected to wear masks on the bus if seated three feet apart from others.
The Ankeny and Southeast Polk districts did not mention buses either way when they lifted mask requirements last week, and neither did Sioux City Community Schools nor — in Story County — the Gilbert, Nevada or Roland-Story districts, according to posts on districts' websites.
Ballard's superintendent, Ottie Maxey, said Tuesday: "I do not anticipate a change in our current practice at this time."
The Des Moines School District and Dubuque Community Schools are among the districts still requiring masks on buses. Both have cited the CDC's public transportation order.
The CDC's transportation order remains in effect until it's "modified or rescinded based on specific public health or other considerations," or until the Secretary of Health and Human Services rescinds the determination that a public health emergency exists.
What about other forms of transportation?
The Transportation Security Administration recently extended its face mask requirement for airplanes, airports, trains, commuter rail systems and other modes of transportation through Sept. 13.
Citing TSA requirements, the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority said on its website Monday that masks must still be worn on public transit, despite the CDC's otherwise relaxed guidelines for fully vaccinated Americans.
Riders on Iowa City buses and CyRide in Ames are also required to wear masks, per federal law.
Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at email@example.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.