Mask mandate bans put Iowa parents in untenable position

Tara Lanning: During a Delta variant surge, all former safeguards in Iowa schools are gone. -promoted by Laura Belin

I live in Waukee with my husband and our two kids. Someone in our family is immunocompromised, and my mom has fought cancer twice, so when COVID-19 struck, we played it safe. We signed up for a grocery delivery service; we cooked more than we ever have before; we declined all social opportunities; we skipped celebrating the holidays with our family. We adjusted, and we sacrificed.

Last August, we made the difficult decision to pull our 7- and 10-year-old kids from their elementary school to be independently homeschooled. While Waukee did offer virtual instruction, I knew it wouldn’t be a good fit for my kids, who both have unique learning differences.

My son has a slew of diagnoses – he is autistic, highly gifted, severely dysgraphic, and has an anxiety disorder. He can do math that is two or three grade levels ahead, but he cannot write a single paragraph. With his unique profile, school was never a great fit for him. My daughter is also dyslexic, but in many ways is a typical 7-year-old. She adored her previous teachers. She takes a while to warm up, but she’s always found some friends each year. She loves PE and art. She’s droll, sassy, and hilarious. She’s almost always had a sparkle in her eye and a skip in her step.

This past year was okay for her. She’s a trooper. She hung in there. Over the last few months, though, I’ve slowly seen a dullness creeping into her eyes, a certain flatness of expression, a listlessness in her behavior. She isn’t exactly depressed, but she isn’t exactly herself. This fall, I intended to continue homeschooling my son, but was very much looking forward to sending my daughter back to school. I submitted the re-enrollment paperwork in June. I bought her a new lunchbox and stocked up on masks. I wanted my sunshiny girl back.

My parents got vaccinated in February. Appointments back then were so difficult to get, and people were so desperate. You had to have your information stored in auto-complete and submit your forms right at midnight, or you didn’t stand a chance. Senior citizens were struggling with the process, so a friend and I volunteered hundreds of hours to help more 750 Iowans schedule their vaccinations. The high demand was heartening. Maybe we could all pull together and beat back this virus.

My husband and I were able to get vaccinated in April. Not long after that, cases began plummeting. The future seemed bright; we were so optimistic.

And now? Delta. School starts in thirteen days, and Republican lawmakers and Governor Kim Reynolds have forbidden schools to require masks. Our local school board says “things will look more normal this year.”

More normal? In the face of a variant which is far more transmissible, possibly more virulent, and tends to make kids sicker? At my daughter’s elementary school of 750 unvaccinated kids, the students will all be eating in the cafeteria together again. Kids with known exposures to COVID-19 will not have to quarantine. Parents will not receive notifications if their kid sat right next to someone who tested positive; instead, we will get grade-level notifications only. Test Iowa has shut down. The state updates its coronavirus website only once a week now. Most important, mandatory masking (last year's policy in Waukee schools) is illegal.

During a Delta variant surge, all former safeguards are gone.

The school board reassures us that they went through “barrels” of sanitizer last year and will continue to do deep cleaning this year. Yet we know coronavirus is airborne. We know it is rarely spread by unclean hands or touching surfaces. What would actually help is universal masking, ventilation, filtration, and strongly encouraging all who are eligible for vaccines, to get them. We get hand sanitizer and deep cleaning instead.

I see other parents online saying things like, “If you’re so concerned, just send your kid in a mask and leave mine alone.” Yet we’ve been in this pandemic for too long to pretend that we don’t all know how masks work by now. Sending my kid in a mask is pointless if almost everyone else isn’t wearing one, and the lunchroom situation would be dangerous regardless.

As if this whole experience hasn’t been isolating enough, we feel like aliens on the rare occasions that we do go somewhere (masked up with N95s). We still get groceries delivered, but we feel more comfortable getting take-out food from restaurants, or doing quick runs to the store for things we can’t find online. In a sea of bare faces, we stand out in our masks. The societal pressure to pretend everything is fine is strong.

I am unsure what this school year will bring. I’m staring down the barrel of a second year of homeschooling, at least for a few months until my kids are eligible for the vaccine. I’m beyond mad--I’m incandescent. I can’t believe we live in a state with such lack of compassion and generosity, such selfishness.

I hate that I have to decide between my daughter’s mental health and her physical health. We’ve stretched our budget to be able to afford tutoring for her dyslexia throughout the past year, but it hasn’t been easy. She needs speech therapy as well, something she used to get at school. I tell myself that I can get her counseling soon, and she’s resilient; somehow we’ll make up for these lost years. She’s been isolated for nearly 20 percent of her life, though. But if I send her back to school, and she gets COVID-19, wouldn’t that make these past 18 months of sacrifice pointless?

I’m aghast that the Iowa Department of Public Health told schools to treat COVID-19 like other childhood illnesses. This is a novel virus that has existed for less than two years. We don’t know its long-term effects. Measles survivors can develop a fatal disease of the nervous system decades after recovery. Chicken pox can resurface as shingles, which I’ve heard is no walk in the park. Alzheimer’s runs in my family; the neurological effects of COVID are terrifying.

We don’t have any evidence to suggest COVID will cause long-term devastation, but we also don’t have evidence it won’t. A bit of humility seems in order when dealing with a virus that has frequently surprised us. This is not like the flu. We know the flu.

I moved to Iowa from South Carolina in 2002. I loved it here. I loved the people. I loved the purple state political discourse. I loved the quiet, salt-of-the-earth progressiveness in Iowa’s history – it produced the first female lawyer, it had marriage equality before most of the U.S. The scars from this pandemic will last long after the plague is over. Iowa, you have broken my heart.

Top photo of the cafeteria in Grant Ragan Elementary School in Waukee posted on the school's Facebook page in August 2020.

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