Iowa Department of Education guidance for reopening schools says requiring face masks is ‘not recommended’

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On Thursday, the Iowa Department of Education (DOE) issued its guidance for schools to safely reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic. The document immediately attracted attention for a paragraph stating that policies that mandate the wearing of face masks or other coverings that experts say limit the spread of the virus are “not recommended.”

Requiring face coverings for all staff and students is not recommended. Allow the personal use of cloth face coverings by staff and students. Teach and reinforce the prevention of stigma associated with the use or non-use of facial coverings to support a respectful, inclusive, and supportive school environment (CDC).

The link at the end of this section goes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention page on reducing stigma. But that page addresses the stigmatization of people on the basis of their race or occupation, not over a choice of whether or not to wear a face mask. The closest the page comes to that is explaining that some people with disabilities may have difficulty following COVID-19 recommendations and no stigma should be attached to that.

The CDC does address face coverings in its guidance related to the “President’s Plan for Opening America Up Again.” According to that document, “Face coverings should be worn by staff and encouraged in students (particularly older students) if feasible and are most essential in times when physical distancing is difficult.”

Instead of telling schools to teach students not to stigmatize choices about wearing a mask, the CDC says “Information should be provided to staff and students on proper use, removal, and washing of cloth face coverings.”

The CDC does note certain exceptions that should be made when it comes to mask-wearing in schools: “Face coverings are not recommended for babies or children under the age of 2, or for anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the covering without assistance.”

Wearing a face mask in public has become a political issue in the United States, and Iowa is no exception, according to a new Iowa Poll published last week by the Des Moines Register.

An overwhelming majority of Iowa Democrats — 76 percent — said they wear face masks in public, as did 52 percent of people who identify as political independents. But only 37 percent of Republicans said they wear face masks in public.

The Iowa Poll also found divisions on face mask use along gender lines, and among age groups.

A majority of women, 66 percent, said they wear face masks in public almost all or most of the time, but only 42 percent of men said they did. People 65 or older are most likely to wear masks — 68 percent said they did — while only 46 percent of adults under the age of 35 said they wear them almost all or most of the time.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said last week there was no need to impose requirements to wear face masks in public, or to allow city or county government to do so — local governments cannot require it without the governor’s approval — because she trusts individual Iowans to make the right decisions for themselves.

Mark Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), which represents more than 34,000 educators in the state, criticized the new DOE guidance.

“The Iowa Department of Education’s reopening guidance is inconsistent with CDC guidance, common sense and good public policy and we cannot recommend support,” he said in a written statement.

The ISEA said, “We call on local districts to adopt their own safety protocols.”

Local school districts are able to add restrictions beyond what DOE is requiring, but the department’s guidance says that if districts do, they should make it clear it is their decision. “Schools are reminded that when not using the Department’s guidance word for word, they should indicate this was a locally determined distinction,” according to the guidance.

Neither the Iowa City Community School District nor the Cedar Rapids Community School District have completed their “Return-to-Learn” plans for how they will resume in-person instruction in the fall. Plans must be submitted to DOE by July 1.

Both school districts have online pages with information about COVID-19 and schools.

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