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Iowa City School Board Unanimously Approves Mask Mandate

A teacher wearing a protective mask walks around the classroom during a lesson at an elementary school in San Francisco in October 2020.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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A teacher wearing a protective mask walks around the classroom during a lesson at an elementary school in San Francisco in October 2020.

The Iowa City Community School District became the latest to reinstate a mask mandate during a board meeting Tuesday night. Some of the largest districts in the state have taken immediate action to require students and staff to wear face coverings, following a federal ruling earlier this week that temporarily blocked enforcement of the state's ban on mandating masks in schools.

The Iowa City school board voted unanimously in support of the mask mandate Tuesday night, with little discussion among board members. The requirement goes into effect Wednesday, as do mandates in the Cedar Rapids and Des Moines school systems.

The Iowa City rule applies to everyone inside an ICCSD building or on the district’s campuses, as well as spectators at all indoor and outdoor events. Students actively participating in athletic competitions are not required to wear masks, though students and staff on the sidelines are required to.

Community members who addressed the board Tuesday spoke overwhelmingly in support of the mandate, which the parents and neighbors said is vital to keep students safe and attending school in-person.

Multiple parents spoke about the “sheer misery” of last year’s forced online instruction as COVID swept through classroom after classroom. Parent Jen Knights urged the board to do everything it can to keep kids in school safely.

“My kids also learned online all year last year and it was excruciating for all of us. We know that even without the ability to social distance at all times, masks are effective at greatly reducing the spread of COVID,” Knights said. “There are critical tool in fighting the pandemic, ending the pandemic.”

Knights said she also spoke on behalf of her friend Nora, who she said wanted to attend the meeting but could not because she “could barely breathe” due to her long COVID.

“Just let that sink in for a minute,” Knights said in reference to her friend. “Because some people who are at this meeting are unmasked, I actually will leave after making my comments as well. I think it's important to note that our kids do not have this choice in their crowded classrooms.”

Janice Weiner, who is an Iowa City Councilmember and says she will soon have a child attending an ICCSD school, urged the board to put the “public good” ahead of personal freedoms.

“If you could save one child's life, would you? If you could prevent 10 children from being hospitalized, from having potentially lifelong medical issues, would you?” Weiner asked. “How can we not act?”

Micki Salge, who identified herself as a mother and a vaccinated healthcare worker, urged the board to consider how a mask mandate could impact the mental health of students struggling with depression. She read a message that had been written by her son Dylan, who committed suicide earlier this year.

“What depression means to me, it means losing motivation in so many things you used to love. It’s having to wear a mask every day, hoping that somebody will care enough to pull that mask down and see how you really are,” Salge said, her voice thick with emotion.

Parent Marianne Jones also told the board to consider students’ mental health in their deliberations, though she said requiring masks would make it easier for her child to handle their anxiety and depression.

“For my child, going into a school building where some people are not wearing masks is hugely triggering for her. It does not feel like a safe environment,” Jones said. “On behalf of kids with very serious mental health issues, being in school is critically important. And the best way to keep our kids in school and keep COVID manageable and even reasonable, is to keep our kids in masks.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called face coverings a “critical tool in the fight against COVID-19”; the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended universal masking for all students, teachers and school staff, noting that face coverings are especially important for the large portion of students who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

The local requirements come after a federal ruling handed down earlier this week temporarily stalled the state’s ban on mask mandates in schools.

The decision came in a lawsuit brought by parents and advocates for students with disabilities, who they say are being forced to choose between putting their health at risk in order to go to school, or to accept the lesser option of remote learning.

Other Iowa districts are expected to consider adopting their own face covering requirements in the coming days.

Iowa is also under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education over its ban on mask mandates.