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Charles City School District weighs benefits, consequences of mask mandate

By James Grob,

A recent judge’s ruling has forced the Charles City School District to once again take a look at the pros and cons of mandating masks in its school buildings.

Charles City Board of Directors President Josh Mack said he has talked with board members to try to get their position on where they feel the school district should go regarding masks or no masks.

He said that all the board members are waiting to hear what the school district’s legal advisors have to say, what other school districts in the area have to say, and what county and statewide health officials have to say.

“I know that Mike (Charles City Superintendent Mike Fisher) has reached out to our legal council to find out if we can do this, and if we do, what the possible ramifications would be,” Mack said. “We also want to talk to community members, and we want to hear from teachers and parents.”

On Monday this week, a federal judge ordered the state of Iowa to immediately halt enforcement of a new state law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Judge Robert Pratt said that the law passed in May substantially increases the risk of several children with health conditions of contracting COVID-19.

Pratt said he has looked at data on the effectiveness of masks to reduce the spread of the virus and agrees with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics on mask wearing in schools.

His order said Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo cannot enforce the law banning local school districts from choosing to mandate masks for students, staff, teachers and visitors.

Pratt issued a temporary restraining order to be in effect immediately. It remains in effect until the court issues an order for a preliminary injunction.

The Charles City School District required masks be worn inside school buildings for most of the last school year, until the law was passed. Districts in Des Moines, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids all reinstated mask mandates this week, while several other districts around the state have discussed it.

“At this time, the district is awaiting guidance from our legal counsel, the Iowa Department of Education, our leadership team and local health experts in finding a win-win solution,” the Charles City School District said in a statement. “While we do not require masks inside our buildings, we welcome mask use by our students, staff, and visitors.”

The statement said that the Charles City Board of Education did not discuss the judge’s ruling at its regularly scheduled meeting on Monday because it wasn’t on the published agenda.

Mack said that although the infection rate in Floyd County has been high in recent weeks, the district needs to present hard facts and data to justify a debate on a mask mandate.

“If we are going to do something, we need to have a more substantial reason than just, ‘I’m nervous about it’ or ‘I’m not worried about it,’” Mack said. “If we’re going to do something, we need some metric around that decision.”

At the annual IRSPA Big 4 forum, held Wednesday morning at NIACC in Charles City, Iowa Sen. Amanda Ragan (D-Mason City) said it’s best to have these decisions made at the local level. Rep. Todd Prichard (D-Charles City) agreed, and added that superintendents and elected school board members have a better understanding of what’s right for their local school districts than the Legislature and governor’s office.

The event was a Q&A with Ragan and Prichard, hosted by the Big 4 Unit of the Iowa Retired School Personnel Association. Several of those attending expressed concern that the district hadn’t yet discussed a mask mandate.

“The kids are not wearing masks in school, and that is totally wrong,” said one retired teacher. “It worked last year. We had very few attendance problems in the elementary schools.”

Another retired teacher said he was most concerned about children in the elementary schools, who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

At this time, the vaccinations have only been approved for people over 12 years of age. The Iowa Department of Public Health has stated that nearly 30% of new COVID-19 cases in the state are children age 17 and younger.

Another retired school employee said she had attended a volleyball game and only saw three people in the gym who were wearing masks.

“Last year, we were wearing them all the time,” she said.

One retired teacher said she believed that some school board members are being influenced by “a small group of people in this town who are against wearing masks in school,” and that decisions about the health of students and teachers are being influenced by the upcoming election.

“We have people who are now afraid to talk about this, because they are running for the school board,” she said. “They are afraid to antagonize these anti-mask people.”

Mack, the only current board member running for re-election, said he has only heard one comment about this particular subject, and that it was a parent who was in favor of a mask mandate.

“I’ve heard no other comments from parents for or against it,” he said. “I haven’t heard from any of the other board members who have said they’ve been pressured by anyone, for or against a mask mandate.”

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