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More Des Moines Metro Schools Add Mask Requirements

Ankeny school board members Ryan Weldon (left) and Katie Claeys listen to the district’s attorney explain a court ruling against Iowa’s ban on school mask mandates during a meeting on September 14, 2021.
Grant Gerlock
Ankeny school board members Ryan Weldon (left) and Katie Claeys listen to the district’s attorney explain a court ruling against Iowa’s ban on school mask mandates during a meeting last week.

After a discussion charged by the polarized debate over masks, the Ankeny school board voted to require them to be worn in schools, following the same decision for Johnston Tuesday evening.

Two suburban Des Moines school districts — Ankeny and Johnston — have decided to require students and staff to wear masks starting Thursday.

They join districts across the state including Council Bluffs, Des Moines, Waterloo, Iowa City and Davenport, which have issued mask mandates following a federal judge’s ruling last week that blocks enforcement of an Iowa law banning school mandates.

In all, at least 20 Iowa school districts have instituted some form of a mask requirement since Judge Robert Pratt’s temporary restraining order took effect. With the addition of Ankeny and Johnston, the list now includes nine out of the ten districts named in the lawsuit, which claims that blocking districts from adopting universal masking discriminates against students who would face severe health risks from a coronavirus infection.

The Ankeny school board voted 5-2 to approve the district’s mask requirement for all grades. That came after more than two hours of public comment where opponents sometimes drowned out supporters. One middle school student said he and others would refuse to follow the masking rule, and some who spoke against it said they would rather remove their children from the district than follow it.

“My kids will not comply. They have a choice," said Kimberly Reicks, a parent in Ankeny who has been organizing against universal masking. "If you want to mask your kids, go ahead, but you do not force my kids to be masked ever again.”

Many parents who argued against the change said it would take away their personal rights, but Jeff Wells told the board the district has a responsibility to make room for all students to learn in-person.

“As I mentioned, I have healthy children and I could easily just bury my head and focus on myself,” Wells said. “But the right thing to do is provide the safest environment for all staff and children, especially those who cannot protect themselves.”

The children of the parents who brought the lawsuit are too young to be vaccinated against the coronavirus and have health conditions including asthma, heart disease and cerebral palsy.

Judge Pratt said in his ruling that universal mask-wearing, as recommended by the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, must be an option for schools to be able to protect students with such significant health risks.

Ankeny parent Kendra Parker said requiring all students to wear masks could also be harmful to children with learning or physical disabilities. She said her daughter has a sensory disorder that makes it extremely uncomfortable to wear one.

“Not one child or person’s rights outweighs another, so how does implementing a mask mandate not go against what the restraining order is trying to justify,” Parker said.

Parker’s example is one of three cases that state attorneys are using in a motion aimed at resisting the federal judge’s ruling.

The Ankeny policy does allow for religious and medical exemptions.

Earlier Tuesday evening, the Johnston school board voted 4-3 to begin requiring masks indoors for all students, staff and visitors. The mandate applies to preschool through 12th grade and takes effect Thursday.

Johnston’s mandate would end if the level of coronavirus transmission in Polk County drops two levels, from high to moderate.

Board member Alicia Clevenger voted against the proposal. She said the district should wait to see how the lawsuit plays out, since state officials have said they will appeal the decision to block enforcement of Iowa’s school mandate ban.

“The order is temporary and it’s against an Iowa law,” Clevenger said. “It plans to be appealed and I’m just not going to play back and forth with the kids.”

The court ruling does not order schools to require masks, but Johnston school board president Justin Allen said if the board does not take action the district could be vulnerable to more litigation.

“It’s not only liability in this case that I’m concerned with, it’s potential liability of additional plaintiffs,” Allen said. “If this ruling lasts, we’ve been accruing damages since the order was imposed for all the plaintiffs out there. So I think if we don’t take action that comports with the court order we’re taking a huge risk of liability.”

Other schools that have recently decided to add mandates include College Community School District and Decorah, which will each require masks for preschool through 6th grade. Decorah is another district named in the lawsuit.

Also, Mason City schools will require students to wear masks if a building’s absentee rate is over seven percent. Masks would no longer be required if the rate drops back below five percent.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa