A loophole in Iowa’s anti-mask law? Linn County Board of Health makes a suggestion as Delta spikes, especially among kids

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

“This is serious,” Dr. Pramod Dwivedi, health director of Linn County Public Health, said of the impact of the Delta variant in Linn County.

“Last week, 605 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in our county,” Dwivedi said during Wednesday morning’s news conference with Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker and Leslie Wright, chair of the county’s Board of Health. “We have seen more cases being reported daily than were reported in an entire week — an entire week — in July. Currently the seven-day test positivity average is almost 15 percent, which signifies a high burden of virus in our community.”

CDC and WHO guidance call for a community to have strict COVID-19 mitigation measures in place when an area’s positivity average is above 5 percent.

“As of yesterday, 45 Linn County residents were hospitalized from COVID-19,” Dwivedi continued. “In August, 13 people died of COVID-19, the highest number of deaths seen in months.”

This surge in COVID-19 is the result of the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, Dwivedi explained.

“Currently the Delta variant is the only strain detected by surveillance testing in our county,” he said.

The news conference was called to discuss a letter the Linn County Board of Health sent to local school boards encouraging them “to follow all the layered mitigation strategies, such as face-covering, distancing and staying home when sick.”

Although current CDC guidance calls for everyone in a school building — students, staff and visitors — to wear a face mask, regardless of vaccination status, in order to limit the spread of the virus and protect the health of children under 12 and others who cannot be vaccinated, a new law in Iowa prohibits schools and school districts from mandating masks.

But in the letter, the board suggests there may be a loophole in HF 847, the bill that created the ban on school mask mandates when Gov. Reynolds signed it in May.

“The Iowa House File 847, p 15, states school authorities may use facial covering when it is ‘necessary for a specific extracurricular or instructional purpose.’ the letter said. “In the current situation when new cases, hospitalizations and deaths associated with COVID-19 are increasing in our community, the Board of Health deems it necessary to allow the occupants of school buildings to wear a face-covering.”

As Dwivedi pointed out during the news conference, although vaccination is the best defense against COVID-19, approximately 15 percent of the county’s population is under the age of 12, meaning they cannot currently be vaccinated. Overall, only 55 percent of Linn’s population has been fully vaccinated.

Walker, who in addition to being the chair of the Board of Supervisors also serves on the Board of Health, said the letter to school boards was not itself a mandate, and encouraged school boards to check with their legal counsels before decided on whether they wanted to require masks for instructional purposes.

“Given the dire circumstances we’re in, we must do everything we can to protect our students, our educators, and our frontline workers in hospitals that will bear the brunt,” he said.

The weekly COVID-19 update issued by the Iowa Department of Public Health on Wednesday afternoon underscored the seriousness of the problems the news conference addressed. The rate of vaccination in the state dropped for the second week in a row, and the rate of new cases rose to a level not seen since the middle of January.

Another 8,308 Iowans were confirmed as having COVID-19 during the most recent seven-day reporting period, which gave the state a rate of 1,187 cases per day. Children under the age of 18 accounted for 22 percent of the new cases, a sharp jump from the average 12 percent of cases occurring in children the state had been experiencing.

In its Wednesday update, IDPH reported another 39 deaths from the virus. The newly reported deaths bring the total of number of Iowans who have died from COVID-19 to 6,307.

Considering how aggressive the governor has been in preempting the authority of school districts to follow CDC-recommended mitigation efforts during the pandemic — Reynolds insisted legislators include a provision in HF 847 making the mask mandate prohibition take effect immediately instead of on July 1, when most new laws do — it’s likely her administration would challenge any school district attempting to follow the suggestion in the Linn County Board of Health’s letter. The governor has maintained her position against mask mandates even though she is currently being sued over it.

On Friday, Frances Parr of Council Bluffs amended the lawsuit she filed against Reynolds on Aug. 24, and two other state officials over the ban on school mask mandates. Parr, who has two children under the age of 12 in school, asked the court to order the governor to create a universal mask mandate in schools to safeguard the health of those most at risk of COVID-19, until schools can establish methods of safely separating students whose parents want them to wear masks from students whose parents reject masks.

According to the Associated Press, the amended filing in the lawsuit also asks “the court to declare that the law violates equal protection and due process rights guaranteed in the federal and state constitutions,” and argues “a doctrine recognized in Iowa since 1918 that holds that schools must be safe by ‘putting students at risk of COVID-19 and the delta variant for no rational reason. Neither the state nor parents have a right to unnecessarily expose a child to a communicable disease.’”

A spokesperson for Reynolds dismissed the lawsuit when it was first filed, saying “Ultimately, parents know the health of their children best — which is why the governor supports parental choice over mandates.”

Parr’s lawsuit isn’t the only legal jeopardy Reynolds is facing over the ban on school mask mandates. On Monday, the U.S Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) announced it was launching an investigation into whether the ban violates the federal laws guaranteeing the rights of people with disabilities to receive an education in a safe environment.

“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said regarding the investigations is conducting in Iowa and four other states that ban mask mandates in schools.

The governor responded to the investigation by issuing a statement claiming the OCR’s action was just an attempt by President Biden to create a distraction “from his own failures.”

“In Iowa, we will continue to support individual liberty over government mandates,” Reynolds said.

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