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Editorial: Tough choices on masks
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Editorial: Tough choices on masks

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A federal judge’s decision to block the Iowa law preventing local school boards from instituting mask mandates to control the spread of COVID-19 has put hundreds of board members across the state in a tough spot.

Where before they could defer to the state’s ban, board members now are faced with balancing the demands of parents who want a mask mandate with others who are arguing against it.

Already, the Des Moines, Council Bluffs, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City districts have put in place mask mandates in the wake of the ruling.

Davenport became the latest city on Thursday, after the school board voted 5-2. The district's mast mandate starts this week. 

In the Quad-Cities, board members and administrators were meeting just after the news broke about the judge’s decisions, so many other Iowa districts have not made decisions.

We’re not sure what these school boards will do, but we believe masks work. The evidence is clear that widespread adherence can limit a community’s exposure to COVID-19. In addition to the numerous studies, we also saw how last winter — when infections were skyrocketing in Iowa — the public by and large adopted mitigation practices like masking and limiting their exposure to crowds. We believe that contributed greatly to the decline in cases.

At the same time, we think the consensus for widespread voluntary masking has dissolved; thus, the divisions we see now, especially when it comes to mandating masks in schools.

We believe school districts should follow good public health advice and they ought to keep all their students safe. Having said that, we also know there are a lot of parents who are dead-set against mask mandates; and it is not clear to us how such a policy would be enforced and what impact it would have on districts as a whole.

Ultimately, it’s possible some districts may not have a choice.

In his ruling last week, District Judge Robert Pratt said by preventing schools from instituting mask mandates the state appeared to be violating the Americans with Disabilities Act requirement that schools provide “reasonable modifications” to allow disabled students equal access to educational services.

Plaintiffs in the case argued that because of the prohibition against mask mandates, disabled kids, such as those with asthma, were being put at risk. Pratt agreed with the argument, writing the state’s “ban on mask mandates in schools substantially increases their risk of contracting the virus that causes Covid-19 and that due to their various medical conditions they are at an increased risk of severe illness or death …”

The judge also made it clear that Gov. Kim Reynolds’ suggestion that kids who felt unsafe because the lack of a mask mandate could just learn online wasn’t sufficient to meet the federal law’s access requirements.

In other words, it wouldn’t surprise us if other parents were to file suit demanding that districts institute a mandate to meet ADA requirements. 

Reynolds said she plans to appeal Pratt’s ruling, so we’re not sure where this will lead. But for the moment, school boards face tough choices.

We do hope as local boards consider this question the public will consider the difficult question this issue poses; also that members of local school boards are volunteers. They don’t get paid, and the reason most are there is because they care about their communities and want to be involved in the education of its children.

That is commendable, and these school board members should be treated with respect.

Across the country, we have witnessed scenes where parents have screamed at and threatened school boards that don’t side with their point of view. These scenes are repugnant, and we hope as this plays out in the Quad-Cities, we don’t see that here; we hope we see a respectful dialogue that considers the viewpoints of all involved.

The pandemic has tested us in ways many of us never thought imaginable. This is another test.

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