Julie Russell-Steuart speaks at the Safe at School Sit-In Aug. 11, 2021, at the Iowa Capitol. (Screenshot from livestream of the event)
A dozen days before the school year begins, hundreds of parents, educators, and doctors called on Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds to rescind the ban on mask mandates.
Iowans for Universal Masks gathered Wednesday on the West Capitol Terrace with signs and banners, pleading with Reynolds to take executive action and allow localities to mandate masks. One of the speakers at the event, Dr. Glenn Hurst, said the decision to only allow the state to enforce a mask mandate was a failure in leadership.
“… We are not mitigating the spread of this disease,” he said. “That is on Governor Kim Reynolds, that is on Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, that is on the Republican Legislature who pushed this terrible rule through our schools, taking away the right of our local communities to make the best decisions for their people. It’s anti-Iowan, it’s anti-health care, it’s anti-American.”
He said the lack of mitigation efforts, like masks, has caused Iowans who have medical emergencies unrelated to COVID-19 to sit from hours to days in emergency rooms waiting for an open hospital bed.
Reynolds signed legislation just after midnight on May 19 forbidding schools and local governments from requiring face masks for students, employees or members of the public. She said last week and again Wednesday she plans to stand by her decision.
One of the event’s organizers and the chair of the Disability Caucus of the Iowa Democratic Party, Julie Russell-Steuart, said there is still time for Reynolds to reverse her decision and help Iowa families.
“Local districts need the power back to protect their communities from this virus,” she said. “I have a message for Governor Reynolds: You can change your mind. We all make mistakes. You can still do what’s right and allow us to protect our kids and ourselves by lifting the mask ban.”
She pointed to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s call to lift Arkansas’ ban to indicate that Reynolds has the opportunity to reverse her position.
Russell-Steuart was one of five Iowa moms who banded together to organize the sit-in. Michelle Breitwisch, another organizer, spoke at the event and told Reynolds not to underestimate the grit of moms. She said reversing this policy decision will help accomplish the goals Reynolds wants for Iowa.
“Reverse the maskless mandate now so your workforce stays strong and your goal of keeping kids in classrooms becomes reality,” she said.
Gov. Reynolds’ response
After the event, Reynolds said in a statement: “Parental control is local control and parents have the option to send their kids to school with a mask or not. As I have throughout this pandemic, I trust Iowans to do the right thing and make the decisions about what’s best for themselves and their family.”
In an interview after the event, Tanya Keith, founder of Iowans for Universal Masks in Schools, said Reynolds’s response wasn’t what she expected. She said she hoped Reynolds would see the activism of the organizers and change her mind about mask mandate bans,
“My hope was that she would say, ‘You’ve made me reconsider, I see now that the delta variant has changed the landscape and yes, we do need local control,’” Keith said. “… She could easily, with the stroke of a pen, issue an executive order saying the game has changed, we’re doing things differently now.”
Keith said Reynolds’ understanding of what “local control” means is problematic and doesn’t protect students — especially those who are too young to be vaccinated.
The movement to reinstate mask mandates in Iowa, specifically for schools, is long from over, Keith said. In addition to Iowans for Universal Masks in Schools, she said a new group has been formed to help fight the ban in the courts.
Iowa Home Rule is a new website accepting donations to raise funds to litigate against the mask mandate ban. Keith said the group is currently consulting attorneys on what their options are.
“We’re looking at several different legal angles to attack the mask mandate ban … and we have multiple plans to bring this to court,” she said. “We’re really just researching what is the best, most effective avenue to win in court and get the mask mandate ban removed.
The website has already received more than $2,000 in pledges to the Iowa Public Health Legal Defense Fund after it went live on Wednesday, Keith said.
Keith said the issue affects everyone in the state.
“This is something that every Iowan should care about,” she said. “It’s our best chance of controlling the pandemic, continuing our economic recovery, keeping kids off ventilators, (and) keeping kids safe … The time to act is now and it’s crucially important on so many levels to set aside our political differences and do what is right and scientifically proven for children.”
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.