Sit-in planned at Iowa Capitol to push Gov. Reynolds to allow school COVID-19 mandates

Safe at School Sit In

Wednesday, Aug. 11 at 10 a.m., West Terrace, Iowa State Capitol building, Des Moines

–Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

A sit-in at the Iowa State Capitol is scheduled for Wednesday to protest Gov. Reynolds’ refusal to allow school districts to require face masks or have the Iowa Department of Public Health monitor COVID-19 in schools. The “Safe at School” sit-in is being sponsored by Safe at School and the Disability Caucus of the Iowa Democratic Party.

“We are calling on the Governor to heed the guidelines set by Centers for Disease Control (CDC), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA),” sit-in organizers said in a written statement. “We are also requesting that she instate increased surveillance testing, contact tracing, parent notification of COVID-19 positives in classrooms, and quarantines. IDPH should update their guidelines in line with the above organizations.”

The same concerns were raised by members of the public at the meeting of the Iowa State Board of Education on Thursday.

“Please help your local school districts make these proper decisions to keep kids safe,” said Jean Schilling, who serves on the board of the Central Springs Community School District (in Worth County, along the border with Minnesota) at the meeting. “Please encourage the governor to allow local school districts to follow local public health recommendations to keep kids safe.”

Following 40 minutes of public comments in support of districts’ freedom to determine their own COVID restrictions, a board member asked Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo what the board should do in response.

“Public comments are just public comments,” Lebo said. “In order for the board to have a conversation, we would have to identify that as an agenda item.”

The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 16.

In May, Reynolds signed into law a bill Republican lawmakers had pushed through the Iowa Legislature, which stripped school boards of the authority to require anyone — students, staff or visitors — to wear masks on school property. The same bill prevents local governments from having mask mandates more strict than the standard set by the state government (which currently has no mask mandate).

Transportation is the one area where the federal government currently has the power when it comes to enforcing COVID-19 regulations, so masks will be required on school buses.

According to the most recent COVID-19 country tracker map from the CDC, Worth County is experiencing a high rate of COVID-19 transmission. Ninety-one of Iowa’s 99 counties have either high or substantial virus spread, the map indicates. CDC guidance issued on July 28, after the more easily transmissible Delta variant became the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the country, calls for everyone to wear face masks in public, indoor settings regardless of vaccination status.

In its current guidance, the CDC also called for all students, staff and visitors on school campuses to be masked, regardless of the level of community spread. Implementing this basic mitigation measure would help make a return to in-person classes safe, the agency said, since vaccines are not available for those younger than 12 and the Delta variant can readily be transmitted by children, some of whom may develop severe cases of COVID-19 if infected.

In a written statement on the afternoon of July 28, Reynolds called the new CDC guidance “not grounded in reality or common sense.”


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Last week, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, one of the Republican governors Reynolds said she discussed COVID policies with last year, called a special session of his state’s legislature. In April, the Republican-dominated Arkansas Legislature passed a bill prohibiting school boards from requiring masks. Hutchinson said he now regretted signing the bill into law, and in the special session, is asking the law to be amended so masks can be required for those under 12.

“Facts change, and leaders have to adjust to the new facts and the reality of what you have to deal with,” Hutchinson said during an appearance on a TV news program on Sunday.

After Hutchinson called for a special session in Arkansas, Iowa Capital Dispatch contacted Reynolds’ office to see if the governor was reassessing the school mask ban in Iowa.

“The governor is proud of the bill she signed,” the governor’s spokesperson said in a written reply. “[She] believes these decisions are best left up to parents.”

Following the Iowa Board of Education meeting on Thursday, the governor’s spokesperson issued an almost identical statement to the Associated Press.

“Anyone can still wear a mask to school. It’s just not required. The governor is proud of the laws she signed, and trusts Iowans to do the right thing on behalf of themselves and their family.”

It will not be possible to get an accurate estimate of the spread of COVID-19 in schools around the state once classes resume, because IDPH does not collect data on virus activity in schools beyond absentee rates. In its guidance for schools issued last week, IDPH said it will treat COVID-19 the same way it treats the flu, and when a district reports more than 10 percent of students at a school are absent due to COVID-19, it will inform that school district’s county health department.

Appearing on Fox News on April 29, Reynolds boasted about returning $95 million in COVID-19 aid to the federal government that was intended to pay for surveillance monitoring of virus activity in schools.

“I think he thinks the COVID [sic] just started,” Reynolds said about President Biden. “I just returned $95 million dollars because they sent an additional $95 million dollars to the state of Iowa to get our kids back in the classroom by doing surveillance testing. And I said, ‘We’ve been in the classroom since August. Here’s your $95 million back.’”

KWWL reported that Johnson County Public Health will provide contract tracing for ICCSD when students or staff test positive.

Although the state is not conducting virus monitoring in schools or publishing COVID-19 data for schools, some local school districts, including Iowa City Community School District and Cedar Rapids Community School District, did publish daily updates on the number of students and staff who had tested positive or been exposed to the virus and were quarantined.

IDPH is not requiring any quarantine period for students or school staff exposed to the virus. It does recommend anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 stay home for 10 days from the onset of symptoms, and 24 hours after having no fever without the use of any fever-reducing medicine.

In its guidance, IDPH directs students and school staff to pick up an at-home COVID-19 test if needed.

IDPH instructed schools that they are not permitted to require proof of vaccination against COVID-19 from students, staff or visitors, because of a new law Reynolds signed in May. Schools may continue to require proof of vaccination against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B and varicella before students enroll, as well as requiring meningococcal vaccine and tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis booster shots for those entering seventh grade. Incoming high school seniors will still be required to show proof of two doses of meningococcal (A, C W, Y) vaccine, with at least one dose being administered when the student was 16 or older.

The guidance does not address the possibility of school closures in the case of widespread local community transmission of COVID-19, and Reynolds has made it clear she has no intention of allowing schools to close regardless of conditions in a community.

‘Lincoln and Tad,’ a statue depicting President Abraham Lincoln and his son Thomas “Tad” Lincoln (who died of a mysterious illness at the age of 18) looking at a book, sits outside the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

The sit-in will be held on the West Terrace of the Iowa State Capitol building, and will also be live-streamed on the Iowans for Public Education Facebook page. Infectious disease expert Dr. Megan Srinivas will be a featured speaker. The two-hour event, which is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., will also have a moment silence for all school staff who have died of COVID-19.

“Suggested items to bring: Mask, A Chair/Blanket, Water, Snacks (if you need them), Sun Protection, A Science Book, A Sign to Make a Statement, A picture of someone lost due to Covid you would like to honor,” organizers said.

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