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Iowa Governor Defends Law Banning School Mask Requirements As Biden Administration Urges Reversal

Gov. Kim Reynolds defended the state's ban on school mask requirements when speaking to reporters Thursday.
Katarina Sostaric
Gov. Kim Reynolds defended the state's ban on school mask requirements when speaking to reporters Thursday.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds criticized Democratic President Joe Biden Thursday for pressuring states like Iowa to reverse policies banning school mask mandates.

In a letter Wednesday to Reynolds and Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the state’s law might put schools, or local education agencies (LEAs), in violation of the requirement to design a safe return to school plan in order to receive emergency relief funds provided by Congress through the American Recovery Plan (ARP).

“The Department is concerned that Iowa’s actions could limit each LEA’s ability under the ARP Act to adopt a plan for safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services that the LEA determines adequately protects students and educators following CDC guidelines,” Cardona wrote.

The CDC is recommending that everyone in schools wear a mask this fall regardless of vaccination status. Cardona said the U.S. Department of Education stands with districts and educators “working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction.”

Reynolds spoke to reporters about the letter Thursday.

“I think it’s incredible that he’s coming after me when we led the country in getting our kids back in school, doing it safely and responsibly,” Reynolds said.

Last year, Reynolds required schools to offer at least 50 percent in-person learning, as schools in some other parts of the country were fully online. At the time, many Iowa school districts required mask wearing, and Reynolds said last September that she hoped adjusting quarantine rules would be a “great incentive”for more schools to require masks.

This year, as many schools prepare to start up next week, Reynolds is resisting calls from Democrats and some Iowa parents to allow schools to mandate masks.

Reynolds accused Biden of “paying lip service to children” while “kowtowing” to teachers’ unions.

“He needs to do his job,” Reynolds said. “He needs to address and get Americans out of Afghanistan. He needs to close that southern border. I’m doing my job. He needs to do his job.”

Reynolds also criticized Biden for not taking questions from reporters at recent news conferences.

Asked if she’s worried about losing federal funds, Reynolds said she defend the law in court if needed, and that the state is already “sitting on” a lot of money.

Reynolds was also asked why she considers masks to be a “disservice” to students.

“It’s about their social and emotional wellbeing,” Reynolds said. “I can’t—listen, come walk the fairgrounds with me for just a day. And I want you to see the number of moms and dads and teachers and children—they literally have tears in their eyes—tears—when they come up to me and say, ‘thank you, thank you for getting my kids back in school, thank you for not masking them up.’ We don’t know what their health conditions are. There are consequences.”

According to the CDC, mask wearing is safe and effective at slowing the spread of COVID-19. And last fall, State Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati said she studied four school districts in northwest Iowa, and those without mask mandates had more coronavirus cases than the district that required masks.

Reynoldssigned the law banning schools and local governments from mandating masks in the middle of the night in May.

No Iowa school district has taken action to defy the state law, as has happened in other states with similar rules in place such as Florida, Tennessee and Texas.

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, cautioned against Iowa districts defying the law. She pointed to bills in the last legislative session that targeted Des Moines schools for violating state guidelines. In one bill that did not pass, Des Moines Public Schools would have been left out of state pandemic relief funding.

“We should not have to be asking school boards to consider breaking the law in order keep families safe. School boards should be able to make those decisions themselves,” Konfrst told reporters on a press call Thursday. “Things are different from when the bill passed and when she signed it into law at the end of session. The delta variant wasn’t around.”

Konfrst said Democrats are demanding that Reynolds issue a proclamation allowing districts to follow CDC mask guidelines. They also want the state to change from weekly back to daily reporting of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, and to accept $95 million in additional federal funding to support coronavirus testing in schools.

Erin Dahl of Waukee, one of the organizers of a protest outside the Iowa Capitol last week calling for universal masking in schools, joined the call with Iowa Democratic leaders. She said she fears her daughter could inadvertently bring the virus home from school. She said that would put her husband, a teacher who has a heart condition that makes him vulnerable to infection, at risk of contracting the virus at home as well as at school.

“Obviously what she needs for her best learning environment is to be with peers,” Dahl said, adding that going into classrooms where people may be unmasked is unsafe, “especially for people who have people at home who are sick or if they have a condition themselves.”

Dahl said she is aware of multiple potential lawsuits challenging the mask mandate ban that have not been filed yet. She said the Biden administration should not only end mask mandate bans, it should put its own mandate in place in schools nationwide.

“I don’t have confidence that just allowing local control for mask or not mask would be enough,” Dahl. “I’m a little bit concerned that they might still choose not to mask.”

Reynolds said she is continuing to encourage Iowans to get vaccinated. Kids under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter
Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa