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State to schools: Masks not needed — and don’t mandate them

Published: Jun. 25, 2020 at 11:16 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - After closing out last semester in a virtual classroom, Waterloo West High School social studies teacher Jonathan Grieder is eager to get back to his real classroom — as long as it’s safe.

“I don’t think pushing to be back in the classroom just so that we can say that we did that is necessarily the best move,” he said.

Grieder said the Iowa Department of Education’s guidance on reopening schools, released Thursday, won’t keep him and his students safe if they are back in the classroom.

The Department of Education said it collaborated with the Iowa Department of Public Health to create the guidance, which includes points like encouraging hand washing and recommending sick students and staff stay home.

But the department also said it does not recommend schools districts require staff and students to wear face coverings, saying schools should “teach and reinforce the prevention of stigma associated with the use or non-use of facial coverings to support a respectful, inclusive, and supportive school environment,” while allowing people to wear face coverings if they chose to do so.

In its “Considerations for Schools” guidance, last updated on May 19 and specifically focused on the reopening of schools around the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say schools should “teach and reinforce the use of cloth face coverings,” and that, “face coverings should be worn by staff and students (particularly older students) as feasible, and are most essential in times when physical distancing is difficult.”

“If we can teach our kids how to deal with shooting events in their schools, if we can teach kids what to do in case there’s a tornado or a fire, what are we doing if we can’t teach them how to be safe from a virus?” Grieder said.

The state is not requiring social distancing in schools either, saying it might not be possible to enforce all the time in every school setting, including on school buses.

It also claimed the CDC doesn’t recommend that schools screen students and staff upon entering the building, adding, “One symptom is not necessarily indicative of communicable disease. Some individuals may be ill and have no symptoms.”

But the CDC does recommend in its “Considerations for Schools” guidance that schools conduct daily health checks of students and staff, which it says include temperature screenings and symptom checking, if feasible.

In a statement, the Iowa Department of Education said, “The health and safety of students, families, administrators, teachers and school staff will continue to be our number one priority, and we will continue to rely on public health experts to inform all decisions made. The reopening guidance, created in partnership with the Iowa Department of Public Health, provides school districts and nonpublic schools the flexibility to best meet the needs of their students, staff, families, and communities.”

Among its other recommendations, the guidance also encourages school districts to provide personal protective equipment and training to workers with a medium-to-high risk of exposure to the virus; post signs on how to prevent the spread of the virus; and follow a framework to routinely clean facilities, including buses, concession stands, cafeterias, and other high-touch surface areas.

In response, Iowa’s largest teachers’ union said it is “deeply disappointed” with the state’s guidance.

Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, wrote, in part, “The ISEA believes a school district reopening model must ensure the health and safety of students and staff and prioritize long-term strategies on student learning and educational equity. The Iowa Department of Education’s reopening guidance is inconsistent with CDC guidance, common sense, and good public policy, and we cannot recommend support.” Beranek also called for school districts to develop their own guidelines that require face coverings, physical distancing, and other safety mandates.

It seems individual school districts can opt to put more requirements in place than what the Department of Education recommends. But in turn, the state said if districts do that, “they should only do so in consultation with public health and legal counsel. Schools are reminded that when not using the Department’s guidance word for word, they should indicate this was a locally-determined distinction.”

Grieder said he’s disheartened by what he views as the state leaving schools to fend for themselves.

“We have to do better than this,” he said. “This isn’t partisan. This isn’t about party. This is about keeping people safe, and these guidelines don’t do that.”

Copyright 2020 KCRG. All rights reserved.

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