‘We are hanging by a thread,’ superintendent says as Iowa’s COVID-19 infections spike

School officials say students wear masks every day but they are being overcome by the COVID-19 spread in the community. (Stock photo/Getty Images)

In Cedar Rapids, preschool students are donning face masks every day and rubbing on hand sanitizer frequently.

At school buildings, posters and other notices remind students to stay six feet apart. 

Instead of hugs, teachers and kids are practicing “air hugs” and “air high fives.”

Still, a burdensome number of teachers and staff absences are happening due to COVID-19, Cedar Rapids Superintendent Noreen Bush said during a Zoom conference held by state Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha. 

Between Oct. 26 and Nov. 9, the district dealt with 356 staff absences due to COVID-19. In the last week, 245 employees had to quarantine, due to virus exposure in the community. Twenty-two school transportation staff are currently out for two weeks, Bush said.

Cedar Rapids Superintendent Noreen Bush speaks about COVID-19 during a Zoom call on Nov. 12, 2020. (Screenshot of Zoom call)

The school district’s efforts won’t make a differences unless all residents also practice the same mitigation measures, Bush said.

“We are hanging by a thread,” Bush said. “This is not a school issue. This is a community issue.”

Like other parts of the country, Iowa’s COVID-19 infection rates have spiked in recent weeks, prompting the White House Coronavirus Task Force to call for “immediate action” to curb the “unyielding” spread of the virus, including a statewide mask mandate.

On Tuesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced limited mask requirements for social, leisure and sporting events. She defended waiting months to impose mitigation efforts, despite rising cases starting in the fall, saying she “traveled and called in to media markets all across the state,” urging personal responsibility.

At least 29 people died due to COVID-19-related complications and 4,630 new cases were reported in Iowa on Wednesday, according to the New York Times COVID-19 tracker. This past week, there have been an average of 4,449 cases per day, an increase of 198% from the average two weeks earlier.

As of Tuesday, 1,152 inmates in Iowa’s prisons have tested positive for COVID-19.

Since Tuesday, the Iowa Department of Education has granted waivers allowing remote learning at 19 school districts and buildings, Director Ann Lebo said. Another two dozen were granted between Nov. 1 and 10.

Bush said the virus moved so quickly through the school district, she initially requested a waiver for only one school on Nov. 6.

By Tuesday, she requested it for the entire district. On Thursday, Bush said she learned Cedar Rapids is allowed to move online until Nov. 24.

In tears, she asked community members to wear face masks when they’re interacting with people outside of their households and to reconsider their holiday plans, which are fast approaching.

“I have faced cancer in the past six months and I will not be seeing my siblings, I will not be seeing my mother on Thanksgiving Day, so I can offer in-person instruction to children in this community,” Bush said in tears. “Do your part. It is a unique and challenging year. We are desperate. We need your help.”