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'A safe learning environment': Inside the Davenport school district's debate to mask up

'A safe learning environment': Inside the Davenport school district's debate to mask up

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The Davenport School District has voted to require masks at its schools.

Face coverings will be mandatory for students, staff and anyone else in a district building. The board's decision was based at least in part on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that say all people should wear a mask indoors in areas of high COVID-19 transmission.

Hospital ICUs have been near capacity in the Quad-Cities for weeks, and cases among children are on the rise.

Iowa schools have been barred from mandating masks by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds until last week, when a federal judge halted the ban pending a new lawsuit on behalf of parents in several Iowa communities, including Davenport.

The suit’s plaintiffs contend the state law discriminates against students with disabilities that make them more susceptible to COVID-19. The law effectively excludes these students from public schools and denies them equal access to education in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, say the plaintiffs. 

"Tomorrow we're going to continue to highly encourage families, students and staff to wear masks, but this will give our families time to talk to their students, it'll give us over the weekend to gather masks, have conversations that are necessary and then the mandate will go in full effect on Monday," Davenport Superintendent TJ Schneckloth said after the vote.

Schneckloth said school days under the mandate will look like they did at the end of the previous school year. 

"When you're indoors, wear a mask, when you're outdoors, we're not going to have masks," he said.

The vote was 5-2 with all board members present. Bruce Potts and Kent Paustian voted against the measure. Linda Hayes, the board vice president, participated remotely. 

There was significant debate among the board members before the vote. Topics included what sort of legal risk the district faced should it not adopt a mandate and how much wearing face coverings would affect learning. The meeting, including the debate among the board members, is available on the district's YouTube page. The district has also posted an announcement concerning the adoption of the mandate on its webpage.

Board member Jamie Snyder successfully had the measure amended to include the wording about a potential change in the law because of the possibility of the hold on the state law banning mandates being released.  The vote to amend was 6-1 with Paustian voting against. 

"If this temporary restraining order is reversed, and it goes back to where that law is in place that does not allow us to mandate masks, that sort of trumps any board action," he said before making the motion to amend the language. 

Potts attempted another amendment. In that case it would have limited the mandate to the elementary schools, while leaving them optional in the other buildings. That amendment failed. The vote was 2-5 with Potts and Paustian voting for the measure.

"Elementary students have not had the opportunity to be vaccinated so they are at a higher risk," Potts said before the vote on his amendment. "Our secondary students have had the opportunity to be vaccinated for a long period of time."

Whether the older students have been vaccinated is their choice or their families' choice, he said. 

"The evidence that is out there right now, shows that vaccinated people can both carry the delta variant and transmit it to others, even if they themselves have no symptoms," board member Allison Beck said before the vote on Potts' amendment. 

Beck said she did not think the issue was about personal freedom or choice because in her understanding personal freedom only reaches the extent that they do not interfere with the personal freedom or health of another. 

Children who are too young to be vaccinated are often in families with older siblings, Beck said.

"I do not support breaking out the younger students, because, to me, this is not going to prevent transmission sufficiently," Beck said.

There was no public comment period during the meeting and only a handful of people attended in the audience, but the district asked for public comment online from Wednesday until shortly before Thursday's meeting began.

"We had over 3,500 responses that board members were able to see," Dan Gosa, school board president, said.

It gave the board a sense of the opinions within the community, he said. The board also had to factor in the health and safety of the students in the buildings. There are children not old enough to get the vaccine.

Should they contract COVID-19, they could be out for a couple of weeks, which is a significant learning loss for them, Gosa said.

"We had to make sure we're providing a safe learning environment for them," he said. 


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