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Linn County Health Officials Urge Facial Coverings In Schools Amid Growing COVID-19 Infections

Linn County's Board of Health has sent a letter to its school districts urging them to consider facial coverings for its staff and students.
Linn County's Board of Health has sent a letter to its school districts urging them to consider facial coverings for its staff and students.

The Linn County Board of Health is strongly urging its school districts to consider face coverings for all students and staff as students return to the classroom amid increasing COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

Last week, the Board of Health sent the county's 11 school districts a letter saying the high community spread of the delta variant "threatens to overwhelm our healthcare system and it may impact our schools as well."

"We know that you are also concerned about providing our children with a safe and healthy learning environment this fall. For this reason, the Linn County Board of Health (BOH) strongly urges you to consider face-coverings for all children, teachers, and staff while in school buildings whether or not they are vaccinated."

At a media briefing on Wednesday, Linn County Public Health Department Director Pramod Dwivedi said the county's current seven-day test positivity rate is almost 15 percent, indicating the county has high community transmission.

Last week, he said the county reported 605 new COVID-19 infections, a number that's higher than all reported cases in an entire week in July.

"Only 55 percent of us in the country are fully vaccinated," Dwivedi said. "Approximately 34,000, about 15 percent of our community members, kids aged 11 and younger are not eligible for vaccination and are vulnerable to infection without other preventive measures such as wearing masks and social distancing."

The Iowa legislature enacted a law last May that prohibits school districts from issuing mask mandates.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education sent a warning to five states, including Iowa, that the ban could violate students’ civil rights.

The letter from the Linn County Board of Health suggests HF 847, the law banning mandates, could allow for facial coverings as it states that school authorities may use facial coverings when it is “necessary for a specific extracurricular or instructional purpose.”

"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," the letter stated.

At the press briefing, Linn County Board of Supervisors Chair Stacey Walker, who is also on the health board, said the letter was "pointing their attention to some verbiage in Iowa law that suggests they may actually have the ability to mandate face coverings," and said school boards should consult their attorneys for legal guidance on the law's wording.

Walker called on Gov. Kim Reynolds to restore local control over mask mandates to school boards.

"We're not trying to be alarmist. We're certainly not trying to be partisan. We're being pragmatic and following the science," he said. "It makes little sense to jam pack thousands of students in schools and leave our educators defenseless against protecting themselves and the students they love.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated guidance last month that all students and teachers should wear masks indoors at school, regardless of vaccination status.

According to the CDC, 96 of Iowa's 99 counties have high transmission rates of the virus and one county has substantial rates, the levels at which the agency recommends all residents wear masks in indoor public spaces regardless of vaccination status.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter