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Schools Review Mask Policies After IDPH Issues New Guidelines

A digital sign outside of Edmunds Elementary in Des Moines encourages students to "mask up."
Michael Leland
IPR file
The Iowa Department of Public Health is telling schools to make masks optional, but many large district will keep mandates in place.

Many Iowa school districts are keeping mask requirements in place even after state health officials recommended late last week that face coverings should be optional and that COVID-19 ought to be treated like other childhood illnesses.

The Iowa Department of Public Health changed its guidance on mask wearing in schools and childcare facilities after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rolled back mask use for vaccinated adults.

But on Saturday, the CDC reiterated that schools should keep using mitigation measures — including mandatory mask wearing, distancing and quarantine — to protect children under 12 years old who are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Since IDPH released its guidelines, many large school districts across the state have told parents they will keep mask requirements in place, at least until classes dismiss for the summer.

Des Moines, Waukee, Sioux City, Ames, Urbandale, Linn-Mar and West Des Moines are some of the schools that are continuing their mask mandates. In messages to families, many of them mentioned that students are mostly unvaccinated.

Council Bluffs Community School District will continue to require masks when students and teachers cannot be more than three feet apart, but not during outdoor recess or on buses when people are seated more than three feet away from each other.

Norwalk is keeping a mask mandate in place indoors, but will no longer require them outdoors during recess or extracurriculars. Supt. D.T. Magee said in a statement that the differences between state and federal guidelines put school leaders in a difficult position.

“Currently, guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Iowa Department of Public Health, do not align, leaving no clear path for the district,” Magee said. “No decision will address the requests of all our district patrons. Some people will applaud today’s decision and others will not.”

The Ankeny school board discussed the change in IDPH guidelines during a meeting Monday night. Supt. Al Azinger recommended keeping a mask mandate in place because, although many teachers are vaccinated, few students have gotten the shot.

“There are only 11 days left in the year,” Azinger said. “It seems prudent to follow the advice that we’re getting from the majority of the reputable medical community.”

During a public comment period, several parents and students asked Ankeny board members to follow the state guidelines and leave the decision of whether to wear a mask up to parents.

“Just as we layered on additional mitigation strategies as numbers rose, we must start to remove those layers as our numbers continuously drop,” Ankeny parent Maegan Anthony told the board.

Ankeny will continue to require masks through the end of the regular school year, but they will be optional for summer school and likely next school year.

Johnston Community Schools is also planning for optional masking over the summer, but the district will maintain its current mask mandate until classes end June 3.

Johnston did decide to follow the Department of Public Health’s recommendation to end contact tracing. Students who are not showing symptoms will no longer be required to quarantine if they were near someone infected by the coronavirus.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa