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Some Northwest Iowa Schools Start Requiring Masks After State Relaxes Quarantine Guidance

LM Otero
Wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID19, elementary school students wait for classes to begin in Godley, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. Three rural school districts in Johnson County were among the first in Texas to head back to school for in-person classes for students.

In northwest Iowa counties where the coronavirus infection rate remains among the highest in the state, some schools have started requiring masks. This comes after the state relaxed its quarantine guidance.

The Iowa Department of Public Health’s new guidance says people in businesses, child care settings and schools don’t have to quarantine if they were wearing face masks properly while in close contact with an infected person who was also wearing a mask. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said the guidance could be a “great incentive” for school leaders to require masks if they weren’t already. The guidance led to some schools rethinking their approaches and policies, particularly in northwest Iowa counties where the two-week infection rate is above 15 percent.

West Lyon Community School District, which is in Lyon County and a small part of Sioux County, started requiring masks last week for students and staff in seventh through 12th grade when they can’t social distance.

As of Friday, Lyon County has the state’s highest 14-day positivity rate, at 27.2 percent, while Sioux County’s 14-day infection rate is 23.5 percent. West Lyon Superintendent Shawn Kreman said before his district started requiring masks, a couple of students had already quarantined twice because of close contact and there was a day when more than 50 students were in quarantine. The new mask policy is going well so far, Kreman said, and students and staff have been good about following it.

“I think the message was, hey, by masking up, we’re going to better our chances to not be sent home for 14 days,” Kreman said. “So I think, the underlying message, kids got it really quickly.”

Kreman said the district is requiring masks in upper grades only because more students in those grades were quarantining. He said it’s harder to spread those students at least 6 feet apart and unlike elementary kids, they move to several classrooms throughout the day.

Masks have become a political issue. A recent survey from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found about six in 10 Republicans are in favor of requiring masks in public, while nine out of 10 Democrats support this.

In Lyon County, 75 percent of active voters are registered as Republican, while Sioux County’s active Republicans make up about 73 percent of voters.

West-Lyon began the school year strongly encouraging masks. Kreman said the district “always felt that masks were very important in helping prevent the spread of the virus,” but saw a challenge in requiring them alongside the political beliefs of the area.

“I really try to tell people that when it's important for our kids, we’ve really got to try to keep politics out of it just because we're not making data-sound decisions when we bring politics into the situation,” Kreman said. “With the new guidance that came out last week, it kind of just helped solidify what we were thinking. It helped make our decision that much easier.”

Sibley-Ocheyedan Community School District in Osceola County started requiring masks on Monday after the board of directors approved a mandate last Friday. The county’s 14-day positivity rate is at 16.9 percent as of Friday. Like West-Lyon, the district is requiring them for students and staff in seventh through 12th grade when social distancing isn’t possible. Superintendent James Craig said the mask requirement has affected each student differently, depending on his or her schedule and class sizes.

“There are some students that may only have to wear a mask in one class, because the other classes they have on their schedule are small enough that social distancing is possible,” Craig said. “We have some students that have to wear them in all eight classes.”

Craig said there has been very little pushback. He said a few students elected to move to online learning at the beginning of the week. Sibley-Ocheyedan 7-12 Principal Stan De Zeeuw told IPR in an email that just more than 1 percent of the 258 high school students switched to online learning on Monday and roughly 9 percent of high school students total are doing online learning.

“I know that there are folks that don't want to wear the masks, but they’re really doing a good job of doing it here and understanding that doing that keeps them safer and keeps them more likely to stay in school and not have to be quarantined at home,” Craig said.

After Sibley-Ocheyedan reported having more than 200 students and staff in isolation or quarantine two weeks ago, the district tightened its social distancing measures so that it could keep students in school rather than moving to a hybrid or online learning model.

The new social distancing plan had students in seventh through 12th grade rotating to participate in some of their classes remotely when social distancing was not possible. However, Craig said with a mask requirement, the district can have all students in its classrooms safely.

The Northwest Iowa Review reported that West Sioux Community School District in Hawarden, which is in Sioux County, sent out a survey to parents and teachers last week, asking them if they would or would not support a mask mandate in school.