One year ago, local school districts were debating how they’d prepare to welcome students and staff back amid a global pandemic. Many required masks, implemented enhanced cleaning practices and did what they could to limit close contact – including Plexiglas dividers and distanced seating. This year, there’s far less to debate after state leaders took steps to limit schools’ powers.
“People keep asking me what we’re going to do, and our hands are tied,” Iowa Falls-Alden Superintendent Tony Neumann said this week. “There’s nothing we’re going to do.”
In May, the Iowa Legislature passed, and Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation that prohibits schools from mandating face masks or coverings. Last week, the Iowa Department of Public Health issued guidance on how schools should prepare for and respond to COVID-19.
“Everything we did last year is apparently not allowed by the Iowa Department of Public Health,” Neumann told the Iowa Falls School Board on Monday. “There’s very clear things we can and cannot do this year. And no matter what people feel, we have to follow what the state says.”
In addition to not being able to mandate masks, Iowa school districts also cannot ask for proof of COVID-19 vaccination and they cannot conduct contact tracing for positive cases among students or staff. Neumann said Iowa Falls and Alden schools will notify families of positive COVID-19 tests. At the elementary and middle school levels those notifications will go to entire grades. For example, if a second-grader tests positive for COVID-19, every family with a child in second grade will be notified. At the high school level, notifications will go to the entire school.
At South Hardin schools, Superintendent Dr. Adam Zellmer said he believes the Iowa Department of Public Health is mostly “on board” with a three-page document that’s pending approval on Friday. It would drastically reduce mitigation efforts compared to last school year. Those measures would include no notifications to parents on the class, grade or school levels if a student tests positive.
While schools can’t mandate masks, they also won’t prohibit students from wearing them. Neumann said Iowa Falls and Alden still have Plexiglas barriers that can be used by request. And the enhanced cleaning practices will continue indefinitely. Zellmer said South Hardin will do the same.
“Regardless of pandemic or not, we’re going to fog now forever, especially during cold and flu season,” Neumann said, referring to a disinfectant fogger that’s used before and after each school day.
Iowa Falls and Alden schools will also still keep track of how many students are absent and whether there are clusters of COVID-19 infections.
“If we get three cases in a 10-day window we’ll be more intentional in our phone calls because in our mind that’s an outbreak and we’ll work with Rocky (Reents, Hardin County public health coordinator) through that,” Neumann said, noting that the district’s hybrid plan is still in place, but would only be used if the district sees an outbreak like it did in November 2020. The district will not offer online learning.
“We’re going to be face-to-face, but we could go hybrid depending on how an outbreak goes,” he said. “We’ll play the rest by ear with just a little bit of experience now doing some of this stuff.”
The state is still requiring schools to report the rate of absenteeism. If that rate is more than 10 percent for any reason, the school must alert the IDPH. The state will then instruct the school on best practices based on the situation.
E-NP School Board member Emily Herring shared her concerns about the new rules during that boare’s meeting on Monday.
“I want it to be said that we are not doing any mitigation,” she said. “I want it to be said because I want us to be responsible for what happens. If this is going to be the route we go, and this is the route we have to go, I’m not going to just sit back here and be like, ‘Well, we tried our best.’”
Zellmer said neither himself nor the district will advocate publicly for the wearing of masks or other mitigation strategies not ordered from the state.
“It is the recommendation and advice from our attorney that it (PPE) does not come from school leadership to say yay or nay or recommend or not recommend,” he said. “We can provide the information to them and it’s up to every individual person and family to make that decision.”