COVID-19: Reynolds sued over ban on masks in schools; more than 7,000 new cases reported in latest update

John Martinek/Little Village

One day after a lawsuit was filed against the state over the new state law barring school boards from requiring face masks in schools, IDPH published an update showing another 7,112 Iowans tested positive for COVID-19 during its most recent seven-day reporting period.

The new cases included in the Wednesday update pushed the total number of Iowans who have tested positive for the virus over 400,000. According to the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH), there have been 400,082 confirmed cases of the virus since COVID-19 was first detected in the state on March 8, 2020, and at least 6,268 Iowans have died from COVID-19.

Forty-two of those deaths were disclosed in the Wednesday night update. Those deaths occurred between July 24 and Aug. 22, according to the department.

Hospitalizations jumped again, going from 396 COVID-19 patients to 498 COVID-19 patients, an increase of 26 percent. The number of hospitalizations had been at its lowest point since the first weeks of the pandemic in late June — dropping to just 46 patients on June 24 — but has spiked as the Delta variant spreads in Iowa.

IDPH said in a statement on Wednesday that 79 percent of the COVID-19 patients in hospitals were unvaccinated. It is the first time the department has released such a statistic. Previously, IDPH had said it was not collecting data on the vaccination status of hospitalized patients.

COVID-19 is spreading in Iowa at such a rapid rate that according to CDC guidelines, masks should be worn in indoor public settings, regardless of a person’s vaccination status, in 98 of the state’s 99 counties. Only Adair County is listed in the latest CDC county-level COVID-18 tracker map as having a moderate level of virus spread. Ninety-five counties, including Johnson and Linn, are listed as having a high rate of virus spread and the remaining three counties are in the substantial spread category.

CDC county-level COVID-19 tracking map for Iowa, Aug. 26, 2021.

Current CDC guidance also calls for masks to be worn in schools, regardless of a person’s vaccination status or the rate of virus spread in an area, to protect children under the age of 12 and others who cannot be vaccinated. It is impossible for any school district in Iowa to follow this recommendation, because of a bill Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law in May.

HF 847, pushed through the Iowa Legislature by Republicans in a matter of hours on the final day of this year’s session, states that school districts and schools “shall not adopt, enforce, or implement a policy that requires its employees, students, or members of the public to wear a facial covering for any purpose while on the school district’s or accredited nonpublic school’s property,” except if those coverings are required for a specific task or extracurricular activity. That prohibition is being challenged in a lawsuit filed in Polk County District Court on Tuesday.

Frances Parr of Council Bluffs, who has two children under the age of 12 in public schools, is suing Reynolds, Iowa Department of Education (IDOE) Director Ann Lebo and interim IDPH Director Kelly Garcia. (Garcia is also the director of the Iowa Department of Human Service. Despite than pandemic, Iowa has not had a fulltime IDPH director since July 31, 2020.)

Parr is asking a judge to order “the Defendants to issue a Universal Mask Mandate… for all students and School Personnel in Iowa or in the alterative, issue a Mask Mandate for all students and school personnel until a voluntary mask plan can be implemented in each school that allows students who choose to wear masks [be separated from those who don’t wear masks]… as a safety plan to prevent the spread of the Covid 19 virus and the Delta Variant.”

“I hope we get some recognition of the risk that this Delta variant is to the unvaccinated and to children,” Parr told Iowa Public Radio.

In her filing, Parr argues that Reynolds, Lebo and Garcia all have a duty under Iowa law to protect the health of school students and staff, and are failing to do so by preventing masks from being used in schools to limit the spread of COVID-19. Although HF 847 prohibits schools and school districts from requiring masks, it does not stop state officials from requiring them.

The argument that state officials have a duty to safeguard the health of students, teachers and school staff was the basis for a lawsuit filed last year by the Iowa State Education Association and the Iowa City Community School District, and one filed by Des Moines Public Schools. Both lawsuits sought to overturn the governor’s order that schools provide at least 50 percent in-person instruction despite dangerously high levels of COVID-19 spread in Johnson and Polk counties. Both cases were dismissed, with the judges ruling that the governor was within her authority to order students and teachers back into the classroom.

Responding to Parr’s lawsuit, the governor’s spokesperson said in a statement that Reynolds’ policies have allowed schools to be “open safely and responsibly since August of last year.”

“Ultimately, parents know the health of their children best — which is why the governor supports parental choice over mandates,” the spokesperson said.

Some school districts around the state have committed to publishing data on COVID-19 in their schools. The Cedar Rapids Community School District will provide weekly updates starting next week. ICCSD already has a COVID-19 dashboard online and is providing daily updates.

Since the new school year began on Monday, 41 ICCSD students have been confirmed as having COVID-19, as has one staff member. As of Thursday afternoon, 23 students and four staff members were quarantining due to exposure to COVID-19.

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