When a federal judge recently halted implementation of a new Iowa law that prohibits schools from requiring students and staff to wear face coverings in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, districts across the state went to work.
The reaction at some school board meetings across the state has been heated, to say the least.
In the nearly two weeks since the new law was paused, at least a dozen Iowa districts — including some of the largest in the state — immediately approved face mask requirements.
That has drawn the ire of many Iowa parents, who made their feelings clear at school board meetings where mask requirements were debated.
In Muscatine, eight police officers were in attendance as the board voted to enact a partial mask mandate. Multiple people who attended yelled at board members during the meeting. Board president Tammi Drawbaugh at one point called for a 15-minute recess in order to cool temperatures, and later ordered four people removed from the meeting.
In Council Bluffs, a contentious school board meeting rose to enough of a fever pitch that police officers were called to monitor the situation. Anti-mask attendees shouted at board members as they left the room for a recess, which had been called due to the meeting’s heated atmosphere.
In Ankeny, a disgruntled attendee warned board members that he knew where they lived, according to a report from the Des Moines Register. And when the Ankeny board voted 5-2 to enact a face mask requirement, individuals in the front rows of the audience yelled and displayed profane gestures at board members.
HOW IT STARTED
On the final day of the 2021 session of the Iowa Legislature, the Republican majorities approved a new law that prohibits schools from requiring all students and staff to wear face coverings. The legislation was immediately delivered to the desk of Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who signed it shortly after midnight.
The law went into effect immediately, creating chaos the next morning across the state for many districts who still had face mask requirements but no time to prepare for the new law.
This summer, the law was challenged in both state and federal court. A state court upheld the law. But on Sept. 13, a federal judge ordered the temporary halt of enforcement while the courts consider legal challenges to the law.
The federal suit argues the law discriminates against students with disabilities and serious health conditions, because their health is endangered by schools with unvaccinated students who are not wearing face masks.
The judge’s ruling made it possible for school districts to once again enact face requirements.
WHAT THE SCIENCE SAYS
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend all students and staff wear face coverings to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
“Due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta variant, CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status,” the CDC’s school guidance says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents 67,000 pediatricians across the country, also recommends that all school staff and students wear face masks.
“AAP recommends universal masking because a significant portion of the student population is not yet eligible for vaccines, and masking is proven to reduce transmission of the virus and to protect those who are not vaccinated,” its guidance says.
COVID-19 IN IOWA
The virus is surging for a third time in Iowa, and new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are reaching numbers not seen since last winter’s surge, which was the pandemic’s deadliest point and was before the vaccines were widely available.
AROUND THE STATE
Davenport: The Davenport Community School District would have faced legal jeopardy unless it enacted a mask mandate, its lawyers told school board members before they passed a district-wide policy to begin wearing masks next week.
The board’s decision, passed on a 5-2 vote, was based at least in part on CDC guidance. Hospital ICUs have been near capacity in the Quad Cities for weeks, and cases among children are on the rise.
During the board meeting, Mikkie Schiltz, an attorney with Lane & Waterman, the Davenport district’s legal counsel, told the board there could be further legal ramifications for the district without a mandate because the federal temporary restraining order speaks broadly to the risks students face without a mandate.
“By not doing a mask mandate, there’s some risk that the people that are already involved in the litigation against Davenport schools and the other schools would go further in the litigation and sue the district for not protecting those students with disabilities,” Schiltz said.
And the risk is broader than just that posed by the existing suit, Schiltz said.
“Even without this injunction, there’s some risk of litigation from individuals with disabilities, or others, not being protected at school from exposure to COVID and then becoming sick from that, or not being able to attend school at all because of recommendations from physicians,” Schiltz 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,” school board president Dan Gosa said.
Bettendorf: The Bettendorf School Board has opted not to pass a mask mandate.
Richard Lynch was the only board member to motion for any kind of policy on face coverings. He suggested an indoor mandate for elementary schools only, and only then until a vaccine could become available for children in that age group. It did not get a second.
There were no other motions and no discussion among board members.
About 20 people spoke during public comment before the vote, most against a mandate.
Muscatine: The Muscatine school board voted 6-1 to order pre-kindergarten through sixth grade students to wear masks in school until a vaccine becomes available to them. Board member Toby McCarter cast the vote against the mandate.
Muscatine superintendent Clint Christopher said that more than 1,000 people responded to an online survey the school district conducted prior to the meeting. He did not say whether most of the respondents were for or against a mandate.
The board opened the meeting by giving several of the members of the audience time to speak. Most of the speakers opposed a mask mandate.
After the meeting, people from the audience gathered outside and circulated petitions to have the school board members removed from office.
Mason City & Clear Lake: The Mason City school board decided to require masks based on the illness rate in a building. Once 7% of a building is sick, masks will be required until the percentage drops under 5%. The mandate goes into effect on Monday.
The Clear Lake board discussed masking as an unplanned agenda item the day after the judge’s ruling paused the new law. Superintendent Doug Gee recommended to the board to “stay the course” and not return to masking. All five board directors agreed.
Sioux City: The Sioux City school board decided against a mask mandate, with board members stating a majority of teacher and community members did not want one.
Board vice chair Monique Scarlett pushed for the seven-member board to require facial coverings for all students, teachers, staff and visitors. She made a motion to institute a mandate, but there was no second from other board members.
Two of the board members said they personally believe masks work, but the feedback they heard from parents, students, teachers and students was overwhelmingly against a mandate.
On Thursday, Sioux City community members held a rally to encourage the district to reconsider a mask mandate and to push the community to wear a mask.
Council Bluffs: At a meeting held the day after the judge’s ruling, the Council Bluffs Community School District enacted a face mask requirement for all students, staff and visitors during school hours when physical distancing is not possible.
In explaining the decision, Council Bluffs Community School District Board President Chris LaFerla told the crowd that the district was a defendant in the federal case in which a judge blocked enforcement of the Iowa law that bars school districts from mandating the use of masks.
“After this ruling, we are faced with very real legal liability if we do not use masks,” he said.
The other public district in the city, Lewis Central, has maintained its masks-optional policy. St. Albert Catholic School and Heartland Christian school in Council Bluffs also do not require mask usage.
Reporters who contributed: David Hotle, Muscatine Journal; Anthony Watt, Quad City Times; Abby Koch, Mason City Globe Gazette; Caitlin Yamada, Sioux City Journal; Tim Johnson, Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil.