Iowa will not require students, teachers to wear face masks when school resumes
Jill Pennington Swanson is considering home-schooling her children this fall if students and teachers are not required to wear face coverings in the classroom.
The Waukee mother of six said she is disappointed that Iowa is not taking more stringent safety precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus in schools.
"It really just seems like business as usual," she said.
Iowa education officials released guidelines Thursday that will allow schools to reopen to normal activities without requirements that students and teachers wear face coverings, undergo temperature checks at the door, or observe social distancing in schools.
Instead, the state will leave those decisions in the hands of local school boards, which could lead to a variety of approaches across Iowa's 327 school districts and 119 accredited nonpublic schools.
Des Moines Public Schools said this week that it would require students and teachers to wear face masks in buildings. Ankeny officials initially told the Register on Friday that they would not require them, but on Monday, Ankeny Superintendent Bruce Kimpston said the district expects to mandate the use of face masks the fall.
The majority of Des Moines-area school district officials that spoke with the Register said those decisions are still being worked out and it could be weeks before parents know what will happen when school starts.
"It would just be nice to know what they are thinking," Pennington Swanson said. "I know August is a ways off, but for planning it would be nice to know what direction they are leaning."
Late Friday afternoon, the Department of Education released a statement saying further clarification of the guidelines is needed. It promised to "release additional information in the near future."
"We recognize that face masks can be an important tool to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus," the statement said.
The Department of Education and the Iowa Department of Public Health have not recommended a mask requirement for all students and staff, "because of the considerable implications for such a policy." However, schools may require masks if they choose.
Teacher's union says state is 'gambling' with health of students
Jean Hessburg, a spokeswoman for the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), the state's teacher's union, said the state's plan doesn't comply with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for public places.
"It is a gamble and obscene that the governor and the Department of Education are gambling on the health and safety of our students, our staff and school employees," Hessburg said. "This virus has demonstrated that it knows no bounds and students can bring the virus home to families and ravage a family."
ISEA President Mike Beranek released a statement Thursday urging school districts to create their own guidelines mandating face coverings, physical distancing and other safety protocols. The union represents more than 50,000 teachers and other education professionals.
"I simply don't understand why the state of Iowa is not taking a cue from what is happening in our country and implementing guidelines that are scientifically proven and recommended by our health specialists all throughout our country," he said.
The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
Iowa Department of Education spokeswoman Heather Doe said the guidance was created with the Iowa Department of Public Health. She said local districts may require stricter measures based on local circumstances.
"The health and safety of students, families, administrators, teachers and school staff will continue to be our No. 1 priority, and we will continue to rely on public health experts to inform all decisions made," she said.
The recommendations come as states across the country grapple with how to reopen schools during the largest pandemic to hit the United States in a generation.
Illinois announced this week that it would require all students and teachers to wear face coverings and practice social distancing inside school buildings this fall. Districts will be required to conduct temperature checks or require self-certification that individuals entering school buildings are symptom-free.
Parents split on whether schools should require face coverings
Danielle Imhoff, a mother of two daughters, said she is glad to see the state leave the decision up to local school districts.
She lives in the eastern Iowa town of Keota, population 1,000, where she said few people wear face coverings.
"I personally spoke to our superintendent this week and a couple of our school board members and just expressed that I would appreciate if they left it to be an individual decision," she said.
Her oldest daughter, a sophomore at Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, has underlying medical conditions that put her at risk for COVID-19. The college will require her and other students to wear face coverings when they return to campus in the fall.
Her youngest daughter will be a senior at Keota High School next year in a class of 29 students.
"I have a child with an underlying condition, (and) I still have this position," Imhoff said. "My parents both wear masks, and that’s fine, but I don’t feel my wearing a mask or not wearing a mask is endangering someone else."
Michelle Yartz, a mother of two Des Moines Public Schools students, said the state is not providing enough direction to school districts.
She is considering home-schooling this fall if the district does not implement stricter rules to prevent the spread of the virus.
"My daughter goes to Central Academy and she was taking Japanese, and now I have to figure out how to try to give her the same quality education from home," she said. "I’m not a teacher. It’s just a horrible position to be in."
Swanson, the Waukee mother of six, was in a similar spot last spring when the governor closed schools for the remainder of the academic year. She purchased an online curriculum and began teaching her children at home.
"We're lucky that I have the ability to do that," the stay-at-home mother said. "I know not everybody is that fortunate."
Yartz said she'd like to see Des Moines Public Schools reduce the number of students in buildings next fall to allow for more social distancing in classrooms.
That's one approach the district is considering.
The Des Moines school board met with administrators Tuesday to discuss reopening schools this fall. The district expects to implement a hybrid approach that would include both in-person and virtual classes. Students would also have the option to take 100% of their classes in a virtual setting.
For those who choose to return to school buildings, the district said it plans to reduce class sizes to adhere to social distancing recommendations.
Des Moines is still working out details and a finalized plan has not yet been approved.
School districts have until July 1 to submit "return to learn" plans to the Iowa Department of Education, which include commitments to provide both in-person and virtual learning options. However, schools are not required to address how they plan to handle issues like face coverings and social distancing.
Jennifer Ulie-Wells, West Des Moines school board vice president, said the district has been working on its plan since the spring. Like many other districts, it is surveying parents to get their input on safety issues.
"I don't know that we can take a one-size-fits-all approach," Ulie-Wells said. "We will be continuing to get the latest information from the CDC, Iowa Department of Public Health and Polk County Public Health to make the best decisions for our staff and our families."
She said the district expects to provide more guidance to families early next month.
Guidance: Students should not criticize others for wearing or not wearing masks
The Iowa Department of Education has made no public announcement on the guidelines, and Reynolds made no mention of it at a Thursday news conference during which she extended an earlier coronavirus-related emergency proclamation but allowed school-related sports activities to resume.
The guidance was posted on the department's website in preparation for the school year, which for most schools occurs in mid- or late-August.
The guidance calls for staff or students who are sick to remain home but doesn't require temperature checks or any other health screening before entry to schools, saying it's not a CDC recommendation "because one symptom is not necessarily indicative of communicable disease."
Students and staff should be allowed to use personal face coverings if they choose, the guidance reads. And students should be taught not to criticize the use or nonuse of facial coverings.
Schools should provide appropriate personal protective equipment and training for employees who have a medium to high risk of exposure or as determined by their job-related task, the advisory said.
"Schools may not be able to guarantee that physical distancing can be met in all school settings throughout the entire school day, during school activities or with transportation," the document said.
Schools are to post signs on how to stop the spread of illness and have routine cleaning practices of facilities, high-touch surface areas, cafeterias, concession stands, health offices and buses, following CDC guidance and any state or federal sanitation regulations.
Des Moines Register reporter Sarah LeBlanc and AP reporter David Pitt contributed to this story.