Gov. Reynolds signs bill making it illegal for schools to require face masks, further eroding authority of local governments

John Martinek/Little Village

It is now illegal for schools in Iowa to require students or staff to wear face masks, even though the CDC recommends mask use in schools, because of a bill signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds on Thursday morning. HF 847 also strips cities and counties of their authority to create mask mandates that apply to private businesses, unless the state government does so first.

Reynolds has maintained that local governments lack the authority to impose mask mandates, but mayors in cities including Iowa City and Cedar Rapids issued mask mandates, invoking their authority to issue orders to protect the public wellbeing during emergencies. The Reynolds administration did not take any actions to challenge the legality of the mask mandates.

The legislation was introduced on Wednesday morning with support from the Republicans who dominate both chambers of the Iowa Legislature, and it passed both the House and the Senate the same day. Lawmakers adjourned their 2021 session after approving the bill.

Following a Reynolds’ photo op on Wednesday, in which she signed a different school-related bill, the governor was asked about the bill speeding its way through the Legislature, and if she had any concerns about it, given the CDC’s recommendation that schools continue using masks and social distancing through the end of the academic year to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“Nope,” Reynolds said. “I’m basing our criteria here — what is the data that they’re basing those criteria on?”

The “they” the governor was referring to was the CDC. According to Reynolds, the data and the expertise the CDC is basing its recommendations on do not reflect what she is seeing happen in Iowa. The governor then resorted to vague anecdotes to explain why she favored eliminating mask requirements in schools.

“I have had parents, I have children reach out to me, and just say: ‘I’ve been in school, no mask. The kids are smiling. We’re excited, I could almost cry to be able to, you know, see the students that I go to school with,’” Reynolds said.

“It’s based on statistics here in Iowa,” the governor continued, explaining why she believes masks are unnecessary in schools. “It’s the right thing to do, and we need to continue to move forward.”

Reynolds did not explain what statistics she was relying on. The Iowa Department of Public Health has said it does not collect data on COVID-19 in Iowa schools.

After the governor signed HF 847, her office sent out a news release in which Reynolds celebrated eliminating the ability of local school officials to require face masks to limit the spread of COVID-19 or any other disease.

“I am proud to be a governor of a state that values personal responsibility and individual liberties,” Reynolds wrote. “I want to thank the Iowa Legislature for their quick work in bringing this bill to my desk so that it can be signed into law.”

Rep. Steven Holt, a Republican from Dennison and the bill’s floor manager in the House, used similar language when the bill was being debated in the House.

“This is about freedom. This is about liberty,” he said. “In my district alone, numerous parents have had enough.”

Holt said whether people participate in public health measures like wearing masks or being vaccinated should be made on an individual basis, even though the virus is transmitted from person to person.

“If we believe that vaccines work, if we believe that masks work, then fine, get the vaccine, wear the mask, and don’t worry about what other people are doing,” he said. “You be you, and you let them be them.”

Boasting about passing the bill on social media, Holt revealed it was the governor’s idea for the new law to take effect immediately.

“Instead of a July 1 implementation date as is normal practice, the Governor requested immediate implementation upon her signature,” Holt wrote.

If the law had gone into effect on July 1, school districts that required masks, such as the Iowa City Community School District and Cedar Rapids Community School District, could have completed their academic years with their existing COVID-19 mitigation plan intact.

“While face coverings are no longer required, we strongly encourage families to have their students wear a face covering, especially if they have not received the COVID-19 vaccination,” ICCSD Superintendent Matt Degner said in an email to district families, after Reynolds signed HF 847. “We also recommend that staff continue to wear face coverings while at work and social distancing is not possible or when staff are in group settings. Bullying and harassment of individuals who choose whether or not to wear a face covering will not be tolerated.”

In her message to families explaining the change, CRCSD Superintendent Noreen Bush noted there are still some unanswered questions about the new law.

“We are unclear if this provision applies to school buses as the national law requires masks on all public transportation vehicles — planes and buses. We will follow up with communication as soon as we receive addition guidance regarding school transportation.”

Both superintendents thanked families for being understanding and supportive.

Reynolds staged a photo op for the signing of SF 847, surrounding herself with other people opposed to school requiring face masks in schools as the pandemic continues (IDPH has reported 1,381 new cases of the virus in the state over the past seven days). The bill was not the only thing Reynolds signed during the photo op.

The governor also autographed a supporter’s sign that equated mask requirements with child abuse.

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