Gilbert's school board votes to encourage — but not require — masks to be worn at school

The board also voted Thursday to join Indianola in flouting the federal requirement that students wear masks on buses, opting instead to give students and families a choice.

Phillip Sitter
Ames Tribune

Face mask-wearing will continue to be encouraged — but not required — in Gilbert schools after the district's school board voted unanimously in support of that non-mandate policy at a special meeting Thursday.

Though there was applause after the board's vote in a crowded school library, some of the board's five members said they were in favor of a mandate of some sort now — or would be if COVID-19 case numbers in the district grow to a point where a mandate felt necessary in order to preserve in-person learning.

The board's decision Thursday came after a federal judge issued an order Monday temporarily blocking the state from barring districts from issuing the mandates. That opened the door for communities to debate the issue again, and some districts around the state, including nearby Ames, have decided to mandate masks again.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the law prohibiting mask mandates by cities, counties and schools in May, but the law received fresh scrutiny as Iowa students returned to school this fall while COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge, driven by the more infectious delta coronavirus variant and unvaccinated Iowans.

Reynolds has said she plans to appeal the order.

More:A judge blocked Iowa's ban on mask mandates in schools. What does it mean and which schools brought masks back?

Board divided on appropriate mitigation measures: 'This year is different than last year, and we need to treat it differently'

Students and community members gather in the library of Gilbert's intermediate school Thursday to hear the district's school board opt to not mandate face masks be worn.

In Gilbert, it was clear Thursday that many of the approximately 50 or more people attending the meeting in the intermediate school's library — especially students — were against a mandate. Many held signs that read, "No masks."

The board's president, Andrew Ricklefs, said he had never seen as many people at a school board meeting before — especially students.

Board members also said they'd received hundreds of emails, text messages and phone calls ahead of the meeting, expressing a variety of opinions.

Ricklefs said some were overly aggressive, including "personal attacks toward the board and the staff," adding, "These are not called for — neither in Gilbert nor in any community."

"We do not have political agendas behind any ideas or thoughts," he said at the beginning of Thursday's meeting. "We do care greatly for our students and all staff. Simply put: We are community members and parents who just want to give back."

"I never thought this volunteer job would cost me so much sleep," Board member Deb Ordal remarked at one point.

More, for subscribers:Will Iowa schools require masks? With Iowa's mask ban temporarily halted, districts renew the debate

Before making a motion to vote on, each board member gave their opinion on a mask mandate and other COVID-19 mitigation strategies — showing how the vote would go before it was taken.

Ordal said she did not think the district was doing enough to mitigate risks, and could do more to ensure sick children stay home and that there's more ventilation, but she did not support a mask mandate.

Board member Tyler Holck said the district should remain vigilant and use all other levels of mitigation available, but not masks. Holck cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidance on mitigation strategies in schools in saying that strategies should be based on local contexts and minimize negative physical, mental and emotional consequences.

The CDC has recommended all students, staff and visitors at school districts wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.

"We had all hoped that we'd be done with COVID by now, but we're not," Holck said. "However, I believe that this year is different than last year, and we need to treat it differently."

More:As Gov. Kim Reynolds shares uncertainty on masks, Iowa health experts say their benefit is clear

Board member John Nelson said that, despite the seriousness of COVID-19, he was not in favor a mandate. Nelson, who said he has a daughter with special needs who won't keep a mask on, said mandates do not take into account individual circumstances.

Board vice president Jeff Mosiman said he would vote in favor of requiring children under the age of 12, who are too young to be eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 have, to wear masks, even though "I'm not big into telling people what to do."

However, Mosiman added that he thought there was no reason for high schoolers or middle schoolers to have to wear masks.

Ricklefs said that though individual families know what's best for their family, the number one goal is to have students learning in-person at school and, "if we have to put masks on kids to get them back on site, we will do so, no questions asked."

"We are still going to push kids to wear masks," he added. "This does not mean we don't want you to wear masks."

Board decides to extend masks policy to buses, defying federal order

The board also decided that its vote applies to school buses — meaning masks will remain optional there in the district. The CDC issued an order in February that requires people to wear masks on public transportation. According to guidance issued by the Iowa Department of Public Health and distributed to districts by the Iowa Department of Education earlier this month, that order also applies to school buses:

"The CDC issued an Order effective February 1, 2021, imposing a requirement for persons to wear masks while on public transportation conveyances, and in its Frequently Asked Questions document accompanying the Order the CDC indicates that 'passengers and drivers must wear a mask on school buses, including on buses operated by public and private school systems, subject to the exclusions and exemptions in the CDC’s Order.' "

The guidance reminds districts that the state's Department of Education provided guidance on busing mask requirements in a May webinar, and encourages districts with questions about the applicability of the order to contact their district’s legal counsel.

The district joins Indianola in flouting the federal requirement that students wear masks on buses, opting instead to give students and families a choice. West Des Moines held the same policy before joining Des Moines and Urbandale school districts Thursday in voting to require all students and staff to wear masks at school.

Gilbert Superintendent Christine Trujillo and board members emphasized that sick children should stay home from school and that the district plans to continue or reimplement a number of mitigation measures, including cleaning and physical distancing, outdoor dining where possible, isolating sick students who visit school nurses' offices, and making COVID-19 test kits available.

The district's measures and COVID-19 case dashboard are available online, at GilbertCSD.org. As of Thursday, there were 12 active cases of COVID-19 among students in the district and two among staff.

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 psitter@gannett.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.