Masks and vaccines ‘strongly recommended’ for Cedar Rapids students and teachers

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

The Cedar Rapids Community School District (CRCSD) is “strongly recommending” students wear masks when returning to school this fall and is requiring masks on district buses. School districts in Iowa can no longer require mask-wearing in their schools, due to a law Gov. Kim Reynolds signed in May.

Students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 will be required to isolate for 10 days, but the district will not conduct contact tracing. The district will encourage individuals who have symptoms to get tested and will provide access to tests.

CRCSD’s Return to Learn plan, with its COVID-19 mitigation steps, was presented during Monday’s Board of Education meeting.

Cedar Rapids students will have two options in the coming school year: in-person instruction and virtual instruction through the Cedar Rapids Virtual Academy (CRVA).

The CRVA is available for students in kindergarten through high school. Deputy Superintendent Nicole Kooiker said 2.2 percent of elementary students are enrolled, as well as 3.9 percent of middle school students. Kooiker said 2.7 percent of high school students are in at least one virtually lead or self-paced course through CRVA.

According to Kooiker, these numbers could shift, particularly since the CRVA enrollment deadline was extended. Families now have until Monday, Aug. 16 at noon to enroll their students.

Students returning to in-person instruction will see similar mitigation measures to those used in the previous school year. Hand washing and sanitizing stations will be available around school buildings and in classrooms. Classrooms and commons areas will be cleaned regularly.

“We feel really good about the mitigation for bringing students back in person,” Kooiker said.

CRCSD is recommending eligible students and staff members be vaccinated against COVID-19. The district is also strongly recommending mask wearing for all grade levels, especially for elementary school students and staff, since those students are not eligible to be vaccinated at this time.

Masks will be available for those who want to wear them, but Kooiker and Superintendent Noreen Bush made sure to point out that masks are not required, because of the new state law that stripped school boards of the authority to require anyone — students, staff or visitors — to wear face coverings on school property, regardless of the level of COVID-19 spread in a community.

Federal law, however, applies to school transportation, and supersedes Reynolds’ school mask ban. Masks are required on district buses, as well as in vans and other school vehicles, just as they are on city buses. The district will provide masks for those who don’t have one. In addition to wearing masks, students will be required to sanitize their hands when they get on or off a bus.

Free meals will again be provided for students this year, Kooiker said. Since last March, the district has been offering free grab-and-go meals to anyone 18 years old and younger. The meals are distributed at selected schools and no identification or paperwork is required.

The summer meal pick-up schedule is online and ends on Friday, Aug. 13. A meal pick-up schedule for the upcoming school year has not been posted yet.

Lunch during in-person instruction will be served in the school cafeteria with social distancing in place.

Following the Return to Learn presentation, board member Scot Reisinger asked Bush if the district will be conducting contact tracing for its students and staff.

The superintendent said the district will not be contact tracing because it won’t have the “same levels of support” as last year, since the state’s school quarantine mandates have changed. The Iowa Department of Public Health is not requiring a quarantine period for students or staff who have been exposed.

Linn County Public Health also will not be conducting contact tracing for the district, Bush said. LCPH will inform CRCSD when a positive case in the district is identified, and Bush said CRCSD will continue to update its data dashboard of cases during the coming school year. As of Wednesday morning, the dashboard had not been updated since June.

“When you have the level of vaccination rate that we do, for example, with our employees, that’s why a lot of this shifted,” Bush said. “You don’t have to quarantine if you’ve been vaccinated or the majority of your population has been vaccinated. That is true for our employee group.”

“The greatest concern is, of course, for our elementary-aged children, so we’re strongly recommending that folks continue to mask and wear masks because that’s the best mitigation effort that we can put in place. So primarily, it is the vaccinations that changed the quarantine rules and allowed us as a school district to reconsider our own contact tracing efforts. Now, we certainly can reconsider that if we’re finding that there’s a need to.”

After Bush’s explanation, Reisinger said he would like the district to consider contact tracing sooner rather than later “because if the positivity rate increases, that means we’re too late.” The positivity rate in Linn County for the last seven days is 8 percent, according to IDPH.

Reisinger also asked for the district to consider implementing a quarantine policy that asks exposed individuals to quarantine if they were not wearing a mask.

Board member Dexter Merschbrock asked if the district can put up signs in school buildings next to where masks are being provided with information from the CDC about the benefits of wearing a mask.

“There’s a reason why we’re all wearing a mask,” Merschbrock said to the rest of the board, whose members were all wearing masks at Monday’s meeting. “There’s a reason why we’ve gone through this over the last however many months. I just want to make sure that we are — I don’t know how to say it — but I just want to make sure we’re doing everything that we possibly can in reason that makes sense for everybody given that state law has changed, and we cannot require masks as we did last year.”

Membors of the Cedar Rapids school board wore masks during the meeting on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. — screengrab

Bush said the district needs to be “careful about how we are approaching this.”

“We want to support all children and all families in our district,” Bush said. “Absolutely we understand public health guidelines, and absolutely, we’re going to make strong recommendations. In the end, we don’t want to have any child walk into the building feeling unwelcome there, and so we will do our very best to support everything we can possibly do, but we also need to make sure that kids feel safe coming to school, even if they’re choosing not to wear a mask. This is their family’s choice or their choice. We have to support them.”

Kooiker added that the district “truly believes it is safe” for students to return to in-person instruction. She brought up how during summer programming there were two positive confirmed cases out of 2,000 students.

“We do have safety processes and procedures and mitigation strategies that definitely are working for the system and that we can feel good about,” Kooiker said.

The first day of school is Monday, Aug. 23.

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