The Perry School Board was torn Monday night between its desire to minimize the number of students entering two-week quarantine and its fear of issuing a rule requiring face masks to mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The question of masks arose when the board considered renewing the district’s Return to Learn Plan, first approved in July. The plan recommends but does not require masks for all students and staff.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds broke with CDC quarantine recommendations Sept. 29 when she announced that Iowans in schools and businesses who have close contact with a person infected with the coronavirus do not need to go into a 14-day quarantine if both people — the infected person and the exposed person — were wearing masks during their encounter.
While Reynolds’ new rule does not conform to CDC guidance, it has greatly reduced the number of close contacts needing to quarantine in school districts where masks are mandatory. Perry is among the nearly 40% of Iowa school districts with no mask requirement, according to a study released this week by the Iowa State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
Perry Community School District Superintendent Clark Wicks implied that mandatory masks might be advisable if the goal is to keep the schools open.
“The focus isn’t mask or no mask,” Wicks said. “It’s school or no school.”
Perry School Board Vice President Linda Andorf, the only person on the five-member board who wore a face mask during Monday night’s meeting, was also the only one to make an unequivocal call for a mask mandate.
“If we want to reduce absences, if we want to provide quality in-person learning and if we want to get everyone back to school, we need to look at that mask mandate,” Andorf said. “So I’m going to go on the record and say that unless we look at a mask mandate, I will not approve the Return to Learn for October.”
Andorf said she spoke with school district officials in Johnston, Woodward-Granger, Dallas Center-Grimes, Madrid, Ankeny and at St. Patrick Catholic School in Perry — all schools that started the fall term by requiring masks for students and staff — and they all reported no problems in enforcing their mask rules.
“Science is telling us that masks will help to prevent the spread of the germs,” she said. “Medical and health care professionals, the governor, even the NFL is saying, ‘Put your mask on.’ It isn’t political. It isn’t going to be gone on Nov 4. It is with us for a while. We don’t have to personally agree with it but as a school board member, I feel that I was elected to represent the wishes of the constituents who voted for me.”
Unlike Andorf’s constituents, most of the people contacting Perry School Board President Kyle Baxter and Director Casey Baldwin oppose mandatory masks, they said.
“The majority of my calls and discussions that people talk to me about are the opposite,” Baxter said. “They’ve sent me lots of articles, lots of scientific research in the opposite direction.”
Baldwin said he has heard from 54 constituents, and 46 opposed a mask requirement. “I’m very much skewed the opposite way,” he said.
“I think that there’s ways that we can accomplish what we need to accomplish as a school district without, quote, mandating and having a different approach to it that is attempt at more creative by nature,” Baldwin said. “I think there’s something creative that can be done that we can all say that we have our kids safe.”
Director Kenia Alarcon said she was “kind of torn in between” over revising the Return to Learn Plan’s mask policy.
“I think there’s a lot of information out there,” Alarcon said. “It gives us things to think about, especially with the new proclamation that not every person is exposed if others are wearing masks. It could potentially have a lot of kids remain in school, which is, I think, something that we need to think about. I myself don’t know, you know, which way to go, but I definitely do see the information out there.”
Director Jim Lutmer seemed similarly undecided on the question of a mask mandate.
“I’m not a fan of a mask,” he said. “I go back and forth everyday on do we need to mandate it, or don’t we? Is it something we need to discuss as a whole? Is it something we have to decide tonight? I don’t know. It’s a very touchy subject with everybody involved.”
Lutmer said some voters will be unhappy with whatever decision the board makes.
“Some people are going to like it, and some people are going to be pissed,” he said. “When it comes down to it, we have to do what’s right for every person in this district. I can tell you right now, I don’t know what is right and what is wrong on it.”
While some people argue strenuously on social media against the efficacy of face coverings — none of Perry’s anti-maskers spoke at Monday night’s school board meeting — there appears to be a consensus in the scientific community that face masks are an important element in the suite of simple virus-mitigation strategies, along with hand washing, social distancing and the like.
“Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus — particularly when used universally within a community setting,” CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield said in a July article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “Community-level protection afforded by use of cloth face coverings can reduce the number of new infections and facilitate cautious easing of more societally disruptive community interventions such as stay-at-home orders and business closings.”
The board not only discussed the mask policy among themselves, but they also listened attentively to statements from seven attendees at Monday’s meeting, four school district employees and three community members and voters.
Perry Middle School sixth grade reading instructor Amanda McDivitt said she wanted “to initiate a conversation on behalf of the sixth-grade team” about Reynolds’ revised guidance on mask policy.
“Currently, without any policy in place on mask policy, it kind of leaves the responsibility on the students and the teachers,” McDivitt said. “I know some parents think their students come to school wearing a mask, and they feel very certain they have a couple in their backpack, and then they come to school, and they don’t wear them either because they’re not the most fun thing to wear — I can agree with that — or because they see maybe friends not wearing them. So I think it would be beneficial to remove the onus from the students and their young, developing minds in maybe a scenario that they are not completely prepared to negotiate themselves, and have some policy in place that we can rely upon. Not only for educators, who would enforce that happily, but also just to remove that weight from students.”
Judy Tomenga spoke for a group of five PCSD voters from the northwestern part of the district near Rippey. She encouraged the board to adopt a mandatory-mask policy.
“Masks can help us with that lack of social distancing in the elementary, the middle and the high school,” said Tomenga, who has experience in early childhood education, middle school and adult education and who retired as educational director in the Fifth Judicial District Fort Des Moines Community Corrections Complex. “Masks can be our friends. As we look at what has happened at the high school recently, it is unfair, I feel and the group feels, to expect high school students to see the big picture and to understand all that’s at stake. We’re not limiting their rights. What we’re doing is accepting our responsibility to help keep them and others in the district safe.”
Angelica Cardenas Diaz, a PHS guidance counselor and a parent of students in the district, also recommended a face mask rule as a way to help keep most kids in school.
“Now that we have been in school for about two months, I ask that you reconsider the mask policy in our Return to Learn Plan,” Cardenas Diaz said. “In the last two weeks, we had around, I think, three positive cases in the school district, with close to 50 students that are in quarantine. According to the new proclamation from Gov. Reynolds, if all those students were wearing masks, only three students, the three positive cases, would be in quarantine, not 50.”
Mary Hillman, the 21-year director of the the Perry Academic and Cultural Enrichment Services (PACES), said a mask requirement makes sense, and the absence of a requirement causes economic hardship to her PACES families.
“To provide in-person learning safely and consistently for our students, we need one simple step in dealing with COVID-19: everyone wears a mask,” Hillman said. “This simple step could avoid outbreaks and avoid high numbers of quarantined students.”
Hillman said the present mask policy “is not only causing emotional hardships, but it is causing economic hardships as well, to include missing work due to their student in quarantine, running out of sick leave and at risk of losing their job, hourly employees losing pay and struggling to pay monthly bills, food insecurity due to missing work and lack of funds and parents afraid to be around family members due to their work environment, some living in a basement room for months.”
Mandy Myers, Perry Elementary School special education teacher and vice president of the Perry Education Association, the teachers’ union, read a prepared statement on behalf of the union.
“The Perry Education Association, in accordance with CDC guidelines, has been advocating for masks to be required in our schools since the Return to Learn Plan was released in July,” Myers said. “Masks are not political. It is basic health and safety. While the governor’s most recent proclamation regarding quarantine goes in direct opposition to CDC recommendations, requiring masks in our schools would ensure that fewer healthy students and staff would need to quarantine and could remain on-site. If our goal is to remain here at school face to face, we should be doing everything necessary to achieve and maintain that goal.”
Betsey Sass, a parent of students in the PCSD, asked the members of the school board one simple question: “If masks don’t hurt anything, then why not just wear them if it’s going to prevent the spread?” The board thanked Sass for her question.
The final speaker to address the board was AnneMarie McDevitt, whose high school-age daughter endured a 14-day quarantine in September as a close contact.
“Wearing masks coupled with the new air purifying system will give our students and staff maximum protection from air-borne transmission,” McDevitt said. “Regardless of how people in the community or on the board feel about masks personally, we can all agree that we want our kids in school. So if we followed at the IDPH’s recommendations and everyone had to wear a mask, less kids would need to quarantine.”
In the end the board voted to table the motion to renew the district’s Return to Learn Plan for October and to arrange a special meeting at which to discuss the mask issue further.