Local school superintendents, public health leaders react to mask mandate ban for schools

Updated: May. 20, 2021 at 9:42 PM CDT
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DUBUQUE, Iowa (KCRG) - A new Iowa law, signed by Governor Kim Reynolds early Thursday morning, bans school districts from requiring face masks.

Noreen Bush, Cedar Rapids Community School District superintendent, said she was surprised at how quickly everything came down.

“I did not necessarily anticipate that happening overnight,” she commented. “We got communication from the Department of Education around 4:30 this morning to superintendents that this was effective immediately.”

Bush said they sent communication to families immediately, but the short notice did not allow them to prepare appropriately.

Stan Rheingans, the superintendent for the Dubuque Community School District said he has heard mixed reactions from parents. He said around ten percent are happy with the news and another ten percent are concerned.

“About 80 percent in the middle are saying, ‘Ok, thanks for letting us know. We are flexible either way, so we will figure out what is best for our family,’” he said.

The district currently has around 1,000 students learning fully online and of those 1,000, Rheingans said around 500 requested to continue learning online next year. The superintendent said that number is high enough for the district to set up online courses next week as well.

Rheingans recognized parents with immunocompromised children who are learning in-person are concerned with the new law, but he said there is not enough time left in the semester to arrange for them to move to online classes. However, he said they will accommodate to fit these families’ preferences.

“We are treating those students as if they are home ill, providing them with support through Canvas and other online systems to allow them to continue their education for these last ten days and we will get them to the end of the school year that way,” he explained.

Bush, on the other hand, said constant communication with families would be key in navigating the constant guideline changes.

“We are going have to do follow-ups frequently as we move forward to make sure that, one, not only are we supporting everyone, but also creating a safe environment from not just a health point of view, but also a social-emotional point of view to navigate this as we move forward,” she underscored.

One big point of confusion for superintendents in the area is whether students will be allowed to go maskless while riding school buses. Federal guidelines say people need to wear masks while taking public transportation.

“So the question is does the requirement of the CDC amount to a law and what does that law do in conjunction with the state law that was passed last night,” Rheingans added.

The superintendent said they have started looking for answers on their own as they do not expect guidance from the Iowa Department of Education any time soon.

“We have received zero guidance from the Iowa Department of Education at this point,” Rheingans mentioned. “We have got a lot of attorneys trying to figure that exact question out because we want to follow the law and we want to follow the right one. We will hopefully know that very soon, but we do not anticipate that guidance from the Iowa Department of Education.”

For public health officials, like Mary Rose Corrigan with the Dubuque County incident management team, the news also arise concerns.

“With there being such a short timeframe for the school year left, it is going to take time to get all of these 12 to 15 and 16 to 18-year-olds vaccinated,” Corrigan explained, “And, without that vaccination, they have limited protection against COVID-19; one of those protections was wearing a mask.”

Corrigan emphasized parents should think long and hard before telling their students to ditch the masks while at school.

“All of us are tired of doing these public health mitigation strategies, including mask-wearing, but being sick of doing something is not a reason to stop,” she said. “You have to have good reason, data to back up your decision and assurance that you are going to be safe if you do not wear a mask. Without those, it is difficult to recommend completely getting rid of mask-wearing in situations like a school where social distancing is very difficult.”

Corrigan said, if students, choose not to wear a mask and they do get the virus, it is not just about being sick, but also about what they cannot do after that.

“You have to stay home while you are sick or if you are in quarantine, you cannot go to a graduation party or an event or a sporting event,” she mentioned. “There are a lot of ramifications.”

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