Governor blocks Iowa schools from opening "safely and responsibly"

Governor Kim Reynolds loves to boast that Iowa “led the way” in bringing kids back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic, “and we did it safely and responsibly.” The talking point was debatable last year, since Iowa’s new cases and hospitalizations began surging several weeks after schools reopened.

It’s laughable now, as Iowa schools prepare to welcome kids back this week. While the Delta variant has caused spikes in pediatric cases and hospitalizations where schools are already in session, Reynolds and leaders of Iowa’s education and public health departments have blocked nearly every practice that helped reduce COVID-19 spread in schools last year.

THAT WAS THEN

The Iowa Department of Public Health’s guidance for schools last year never strictly followed that of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The state didn’t require masks inside school buildings and relaxed quarantine rules only a few weeks into the year to allow many exposed students to remain in school.

Even so, most Iowa school districts, especially the largest ones, did require face coverings for students and staff. Most offered families either a 50/50 hybrid option or fully remote learning, so that children who did attend school in person had less crowded classrooms.

In addition to social distancing within classrooms (sometimes aided by plexiglass barriers), many schools stopped sending students to common areas like cafeterias and libraries. Some higher-risk extracurricular activities like school plays or show choir were cancelled for the year.

Students and staff often quarantined for some time at home after being exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom. When schools did experience large outbreaks, the Iowa Department of Education granted temporary waivers to allow entire buildings or in some cases school districts to move instruction fully online temporarily.

School and local public health staff in many Iowa counties also attempted to do contact tracing.

None of the above are possible anymore, even though the Delta variant (now dominant across the country) is several times more transmissible than the COVID-19 strains that were prevalent in Iowa during the 2020/2021 school year.

THIS IS NOW

The latest IDPH advice for K-12 schools contradicts most of the CDC’s current guidance for schools. Here’s the full document issued on August 6; the agency did not publicly announce its release and made it difficult to find on the IDPH website.

No masks required

The CDC’s current guidance for schools recommends “universal indoor masking for all students, staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.” Iowa schools are prohibited from requiring face coverings, under a law Republicans rushed to pass and Reynolds rushed to sign on the last day of the legislative session.

In fact, IDPH was already discouraging mask mandates in schools before Republican lawmakers approved that bill. And the agency’s current school guidance fails even to recommend masks for unvaccinated people. Excerpt:

Can schools allow students, teachers, staff members, and visitors to voluntarily wear a mask?

Yes. Schools should allow students, teachers, other staff members, and visitors who want to voluntarily continue to wear a cloth face covering for reasons that make sense for their family or individual health condition to do so.

Remember, virtually none of Iowa’s elementary school students are even eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. Most middle school and high school students have not had the shot. There must be tens of thousands of Iowa students who live with someone at higher risk of severe illness from a coronavirus infection.

In a recent interview with KCRG-TV’s Beth Malicki, Reynolds questioned the value of having children wear masks, saying “we can find data on both sides of the issue.” The governor told WHO-TV’s Dave Price that parents know the health of their own children and can decide whether their kids need to wear masks.

That’s as much an indictment of State Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati (a board-certified pediatrician) as it is of Reynolds. Why hasn’t the governor been briefed on the importance of masks in crowded indoor settings, including schools? The medical consensus on that point is overwhelming. Why doesn’t the governor understand children wearing masks won’t be protected if they are surrounded by unmasked classmates?

IDPH communications staff did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiries about why Pedati signed off on guidance at odds with the CDC and American Academy of Pedatrics, and why the agency’s COVID-19 team hasn’t educated the governor about the benefits of masks, especially for unvaccinated people.

The state’s guidance for schools does note that masks are required on school buses, to comply with a nationwide CDC order. However, Sara Anne Willette has found that many school district policies say face coverings are optional on transportation, with no apparent consequences from the IDPH or Iowa Department of Education.

No quarantines or contact tracing

The CDC recommends that schools cooperate with state and local public health officials for contact tracing, and have close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases “quarantine at home for 14 days after exposure. Options to shorten quarantine provide acceptable alternatives of a 10-day quarantine or a 7-day quarantine combined with testing and a negative test result.”

In contrast, the IDPH declared in May that kids exposed to COVID-19 at school or day care did not need to stay home, even if they and the positive case were unmasked during the close contact. The agency largely abandoned contact tracing in early July, and many county public health departments have scaled back their own tracing efforts.

The state’s new school guidance says nothing about quarantines for exposed students or staff. Rather, it says those who test positive can return to school ten days after becoming symptomatic, if they have had no fever for 24 hours and other COVID-19 symptoms are improving.

Since many children are asymptomatic or become only mildly ill with coronavirus, this policy will guarantee that many COVID-positive kids stay in school throughout their infectious period.

Related note: Although Reynolds told Price that parents would be notified if their child had been exposed, the state guidance does not require or even encourage that practice. Many school districts won’t routinely inform parents if a child spent time near a confirmed COVID-19 case. For instance, Waukee will mention only that there was an infection in the same grade level.

No surveillance testing

In early August, the CDC advised schools that fully vaccinated people “who have a known exposure” to COVID-19 “be tested 3-5 days after exposure, regardless of whether they have symptoms.” In addition, the CDC recommends that when community transmission is moderate to high (as it is in every Iowa county at present), schools should “offer screening testing” to students and staff who are not fully vaccinated “at least once a week.”

Reynolds bragged on Fox News in April that she had rejected $95 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan, which the CDC intended for surveillance testing in schools. At that time, IDPH Director Kelly Garcia told federal officials that Iowa had many other potential funding sources for school testing.

IDPH spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand told Bleeding Heartland in an August 13 email, “Any school or district who wants to conduct testing may do so. Testing supplies are considered an allowable use of ESSER [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief federal] funds, and schools can submit those costs to the Iowa Department of Education for reimbursement. They can also request kits through Test Iowa.”

But Test Iowa doesn’t have enough kits to meet current demand for symptomatic individuals, let alone for any weekly surveillance program. According to Democratic State Senator Sarah Trone Garriott, school districts have received inconsistent or confusing guidance on how to access ESSER funds.

U.S. Representative Cindy Axne, a Democrat, urged Reynolds last week to draw down the $95 million for surveillance testing, noting that the CDC had expanded allowable uses for the money and the Delta variant was causing many more infections in children.

The governor’s spokesperson Pat Garrett did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiry, but Ekstrand said in an August 18 email, “At this time, when the state has several federal funding opportunities through which testing is an allowable expense, we are not considering using these funds to support school testing.”

No temporary closures of school buildings

The Iowa Department of Education granted waivers to some Iowa school districts last year to allow them to move instruction fully online when community transmission of COVID-19 was very high. That’s no longer an option, no matter how bad an outbreak gets. Both Ekstrand and the education department’s spokesperson Heather Doe confirmed via email,

The provision of state law that allowed schools to request to temporarily transition to a hybrid or remote learning model expired after June 30, 2021. Schools or districts can transition to remote learning for all students, but those remote days or hours would not count toward the minimum school calendar. Schools may be hybrid or remote-only for the entire student body and count the days or hours toward the minimum school calendar only if authorized by a Governor’s disaster proclamation.

Chances are slim that Reynolds would ever authorize fully-remote learning again. She has often characterized school closure policies as harmful to kids.

Some Iowa school districts are allowing parents to enroll their children online full-time, but that option will be substandard in most communities where it is available, because students won’t primarily be working with licensed teachers. Several large districts have contracted with Edgenuity, which offers a self-directed curriculum. Students will be able to check in with a teacher occasionally but won’t have an online class with peers.

UPDATE: The Newton school district’s superintendent informed families on September 2 that eight days into the year, one elementary school had more than 10 percent of students absent due to illness as well as eight staff out sick. Excerpt from the letter (emphasis in original):

I spoke with the Iowa Department of Education about our situation to clarify a few points moving forward. At this point we are not cancelling school or closing a building. First of all, if we were to cancel school in a building for any reason, we are required to make the time up for that building. We are continuing the implementation of our Return to Learn efforts. We will continue our diligence to monitor the situation daily.

CLASH LOOMING WITH FEDERAL GOVERNMENT?

President Joe Biden announced on August 18 that he was directing U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to take action against governors who had forbidden mask mandates in schools.

As I’ve said before, if you aren’t going to fight COVID-19, at least get out of the way of everyone else who is trying. You know, we’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children. […]

I’m going to say a lot more about children and schools next week. But as we head into the school year, remember this: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the CDC — says masks are critical, especially for those who are not yet vaccinated, like our children under the age of 12.

Cardona wrote to Reynolds and Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo, expressing concern about the ban on mask mandates. He warned that blocking school districts from “voluntarily adopting science-based strategies” to reduce COVID-19 spread prevents schools from “doing everything possible to keep students healthy.” The state’s action “may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators,” Cardona wrote.

In the view of the U.S. Department of Education, local authorities have discretion to use ESSER funds “for implementing indoor masking policies or other policies aligned with CDC guidance.” While Cardona did not expressly threaten to revoke COVID-19 relief funds, he did note, “The Department will continue to closely review and monitor whether Iowa is meeting all of its Federal fiscal requirements.”

Andy Kopsa has previously reported that Lebo made false representations on a document signed on June 7, which allowed the state to access some of the ESSER funding. Watch this space.

“UNCONSCIONABLE”

Reynolds told KCRG’s Malicki, “right now we’re not seeing that transfer into hospitalizations with children, but we monitor this, monitor the data every single day and we’ll continue to monitor the data every day, and we’ll respond accordingly.”

Why wait? We have data from parts of the country where schools have been in session for several weeks. As of August 19, the states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, where about 23 percent of U.S. children live, accounted for 59 percent of pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former Trump administration health official, observed on August 22 that COVID-19 was “proving to be hard to control in schools. Delta’s a very contagious variant.” He also said “schools could become focal points of community transmission and can become environments that aren’t safe for children if we can’t control very large outbreaks from happening in these settings.”

Only a small percentage of children who are infected will die, but others may develop long COVID or suffer permanent losses of organ function. Some will infect vulnerable family members and may blame themselves if those loved ones die or become disabled.

Reynolds has vowed never to back down on mask mandates; her campaign has sent out several fundraising appeals touting her stance on the issue. In an August 20 appearance on Fox News, she declared that Biden should “do his job” and asserted that what the president was doing to kids was “unconscionable.”

No, unconscionable is forcing thousands of unvaccinated Iowa children to be exposed to the Delta variant, when we know how to reduce the spread in schools.

Top image: Screenshot from Kim Reynolds’ August 20 appearance on Fox News.

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