Following backlash, Iowa Department of Education issues new statement about face masks in schools

Zak Neumann/Little Village

Shortly after 5 p.m. on Friday, the Iowa Department of Education (DOE) released a statement about the guidance for reopening schools safely it had issued on Thursday.

“The Department of Education acknowledges that the reopening guidance released Thursday, June 25, needs further clarification, and will release additional information in the near future as well as health and safety measures for teachers to use to assist students and families,” DOE said.

The guidance had been widely criticized, particularly for its section on face coverings. “Requiring face coverings for all staff and students is not recommended,” the guidance stated, adding that staff and students should be allowed to use face covering if they choose. Instead of following CDC guidance for school reopening, which calls for schools to provide staff and students with information on the “proper use, removal, and washing of cloth face coverings,” DOE said schools should “Teach and reinforce the prevention of stigma associated with the use or non-use of facial coverings.”

DOE’s Friday evening statement acknowledged the criticism it had received.

We recognize that face masks can be an important tool to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The Department of Education and the Iowa Department of Public Health do not recommend that districts and nonpublic schools require masks for all students and staff because of the considerable implications for such a policy. However, schools may decide to require masks based on their individual situations and data.

Earlier on Friday afternoon, the Iowa City Community School District sent an email to district families and staff responding DOE’s guidance.

“We have been evaluating this guidance to determine its alignment with the Return-to-Learn work which is actively taking place in the District,” the email said. “Our research and planning over the last few months lead us to believe that additional safety mitigation efforts above what [DOE] is suggesting may be necessary to safely reopen our schools.”

The district did not specify what those additional mitigation efforts might be.

Des Moines Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, was more definitive in its response to DOE’s guidance.

“We intend to require face masks of our students and staff to return to school,” Des Moines Public Schools Director of Communications Phil Roeder told WOI-TV on Friday afternoon. “It’s one of the proven things that helps prevent the spread of coronavirus. In our case, we have 40,000 people that go in and out of our buildings — between students and staff and volunteers — on any given school day.”

Mark Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), which represents more than 34,000 educators in the state, said the department “needs to come up with guidance based on four basic principles — health expertise, educator voice, access to protection and equity.”

“Students and educators deserve our protection and the Department of Education and Department of Public Health have done a disservice in releasing deficient guidance,” Beranke said in a statement released Friday night. “They must do better.”

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