STC school board takes up mask debate

The topic of COVID-19 mitigation and masking for school students and staff was before the South Tama County Board of Education during their regular meeting on Sept. 20.

Following a federal ruling in early September that temporarily halted the State of Iowa’s law that banned schools from using mask mandates, 20 school districts including Ames, Ankeny, Burlington, Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Decorah, Des Moines, Fairfield, Fort Dodge, Greene County, Iowa City, Johnston, Linn-Mar, Marshalltown, Muscatine, Urbandale, West Burlington and West Des Moines (as of Sept. 22) have since issued some form of a mask mandate for their district.

In some cases districts are only requiring masks for grades K-6 or setting a one week limit on the mandate, while other districts have made broader moves such as requiring all grade levels to wear a mask until positivity rates drop below a certain threshold.

Superintendent Jared Smith said in communication with other WaMaC conference districts that most of the other schools in the conference have not taken immediate action and planned to bring the discussion up at their next board meeting.

Recently the staff at South Tama were surveyed for their opinions about the district mandating masks in school. They were asked two questions. The first was if they agreed that masks should be mandated at South Tama County schools. The second question was if they agreed that it would be easy to enforce a mask mandate in their building.

A total of 235 staff members responded to the survey with 44 percent saying they do not agree with mandating masks in school and 38 percent agreeing that South Tama should mandate masks.

Similarly, 48 percent of those responding felt it would not be easy to enforce a mask mandate, while 36 percent agreed that it would be easy.

Speaking about staffing concerns, Smith said that the point where the school buildings start to struggle the most is when 10 or more staff members are gone from a building at one given time.

The district has crossed that threshold at least once already this semester, though the staff members that were gone were not all out due to COVID-19.

Smith said the district has also developed a contingency plan should a significant number of bus drivers need to be out at the same time. The plan would temporarily eliminate in-town routes and focus the available drivers onto rural routes.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Nikki Kemper Pansegrau addressed the board with a concern that not enough community members were aware that COVID-19 mitigation was going to be on the agenda at the Sept. 20 meeting and said she would like to see a special meeting called to address the issue.

Kemper Pansegrau also said she was opposed to a mask mandate and questioned why South Tama chose to take up the issue when neighboring districts had not held similar discussions.

Through about 45 minutes of discussion each board member offered input toward the mask mandate and COVID-19 mitigation topic.

Board member Ron Houghton pointed out that the positivity rate in the county is nearing where the area was last fall when the district moved to virtual-only classes for two weeks around Thanksgiving.

Board member Mandy Lekin shared around a half dozen messages from community members she received shortly before the meeting opposing a mask mandate at South Tama. Board President Penny Tyynismaa in turn shared a message she received from a staff member urging the board to consider a mandate to protect students.

“If we wanted to keep our staff and our students actually safe and that was our number one goal, we wouldn’t have a question here,” Houghton said. “We would mandate masks until we got our numbers within control. We wouldn’t worry about what Solon does and Belle Plaine does and Traer does. We need to make decisions based on what’s good for our community.”

Tyynismaa then pointed out that a majority of staff that responded to Smith’s survey last week were not in favor of a mask mandate. She said she would like to see a breakdown of the survey respondents by building as it could be possible Elementary staff may feel differently than Middle School or High School staff since the kids in their building are not able to be vaccinated at the current time.

Lekin indicated she would like to see the district utilize or restart additional mitigation efforts before doing anything with a mask mandate. She said she was not in favor of masks and that she preferred to let parents decide what to do.

Board member Alan Kline said he felt wearing masks had been proven as the most effective method to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus and that accepting COVID-19 as a part of modern reality was “nuts”.

Board member Clint Werner said his opinion was that masking decisions at the school level should be left up to parents and that those that wanted to wear them could also make that decision for themselves.

Ultimately, no motions were brought up by the board regarding a mask mandate but the group appeared to reach a consensus of working toward implementing other mitigation strategies. Those include making surgical masks readily available to all students, staff, and guests; offering masks at every entrance during school activities; ensuring all buildings have ample cleaning supplies; having signage posted at all entry ways stating the importance of masking; sending out separate parent feedback surveys to parents of students in PK through 4th grade and 5th through 12th grade; update and resending out the FAQ document to all parents and looking for opportunities to change seating in the classrooms to help prevent any potential spread of the virus.

The board also plans to have at least a discussion item for COVID-19 on each upcoming agenda for the foreseeable future. The hope would be to make sure the board is getting continuous updates from staff about the mitigation efforts underway and the status of positivity rates among students and staff.