Parents plead with State Board of Education for school mask requirements

By: - August 5, 2021 12:35 pm

Iowa school districts were allowed to impose mask mandates under a temporary restraining order on state law. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Iowa parents and educators urged the State Board of Education Thursday to push back against state law and allow schools to require masks in the upcoming school year.

Jenny Turner, a West Des Moines speech therapist, said she took a leave of absence to help her 11-year-old son through a year of virtual school. Both she and her son are eager to return to in-person learning — if schools can require masks.

“I’ve done what I can as an individual to protect us, and I need help … I really need my community to step up,” Turner said.

A law passed in the final days of the legislative session states that schools may not require students, employees or visitors to wear face coverings. Several parents, teachers and Democratic lawmakers asked the state board Thursday to formally request that Gov. Kim Reynolds and the state Legislature amend that law and allow schools to require masks. Children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated.

Iowa Republican leaders including Reynolds told the Iowa Capital Dispatch on Wednesday that they have no plans to change the state’s law.

“The governor is proud of the bill she signed,” Reynolds spokesperson Pat Garrett wrote in an email. “[She] believes these decisions are best left up to parents.”

One parent told the state board Thursday that relying on individual choices would be insufficient to stem the spread of the virus in schools and within families. 

“Yesterday, when my son went to orientation at Roosevelt and 80% of the kids were not wearing masks, if there was a child there who had the delta variant, it is entirely possible — it’s almost predictable — that he will get an exposure to the delta variant,” said Tanya Keith, a Des Moines mom of three. 

Keith raised concerns that her older children could spread the virus to their 6-year-old sister, who is too young to be vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported recently that vaccinated people with breakthrough infections can still spread COVID-19.

Keith asked not just for a lift of the mask mandate ban, but also for the state to require masks at schools statewide. Keith is the founder of a Facebook group advocating for universal mask use in Iowa schools.

“I am desperate to make sure that my 6-year-old doesn’t end up on a ventilator this year,” she said.

Other states with similar laws prohibiting masks in schools have seen pushback in recent days. In Florida, several school districts voted to ignore the state’s ban on mask mandates and require face coverings anyway. The Republican governor of Arkansas called a special legislative session to create exceptions in that state’s law to allow schools to require young children to wear masks in class.

Lebo responds: ‘Public comments are just public comments’

The State Board of Education did not immediately respond to the calls for masks in schools. After nearly 40 minutes of public comment, Department of Education Director Ann Lebo spoke about the Center for School Mental Health and other district-level initiatives, then led a discussion about whether board members needed laptops for state business. Lebo did not mention COVID-19 protocols in schools.

At the end of Lebo’s report, board member Kimberley Wayne asked what the board should do about the public comments. 

“Public comments are just public comments,” Lebo responded. “In order for the board to have a conversation, we would have to identify that as an agenda item.”

The meeting moved on.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.