Governor, Ankeny mom worked to undermine COVID-19 safety in schools

"I believe that parental control is local control," Governor Kim Reynolds told WHO-TV's Dave Price earlier this month. "I think you're going to see some interesting school board races this year also," she added with a smirk.

This past weekend, Reynolds recounted how she "strategized" with Ankeny parent Sarah Barthole last year to force Iowa schools to abandon hybrid models, which allowed for social distancing in classrooms.

Reynolds spoke at an August 29 fundraiser for Barthole, one of seven candidates seeking three seats on the Ankeny school board this November.

During the summer of 2020, Barthole objected to the district's plans to bring students back to school on alternating schedule. She wanted kids to be able to attend classes in person every day. Ankeny district leaders were trying to follow the Polk County Health Department's guidance, balancing the benefits of in-person instruction with strategies to avoid overly crowded settings where COVID-19 spreads more easily.

According to video from the fundraiser shared with Bleeding Heartland, Reynolds told Barthole's supporters,

And so this, Sarah, called me up, this tenacious, passionate mom, and we started meeting. And she started talking about what she was doing, and how they weren't listening, and how irresponsible it was to have elected representatives not pay attention to parents whose children was in the classroom.

And we met and we strategized and we planned. And not only was she working here to bring people together to change things on behalf of the children, but she really helped me organize parents and moms and teachers and kids all across the state. So that I could say to Iowans, I've had the opportunity to do a Zoom, to listen to moms and parents and kids, and how important it was for them to get back in the classroom, to stop learning by Zoom.

Barthole was a featured speaker at one of the governor's news conferences last December. She complained that working parents found it difficult to supervise children learning virtually, and argued that children needed to be at school in classrooms daily.

In the weeks preceding that news conference, more than 50 Iowans a day were dying of COVID-19, and hospitals were near capacity. Nevertheless, Reynolds urged parents "to talk to your educators, talk to your school boards, and let’s get our kids back in school." She asserted that "COVID-19 has less effect on children's health than adults, and that schools are not a primary driver of the virus transmission and spread."

Reynolds said at the August 29 fundraiser that Barthole worked behind the scenes to support legislation Republicans passed in January, requiring schools to offer 100 percent in-person instruction to every family that preferred that model. The governor drew applause and cheers when she added, "Then we ended the year by making sure that we banned mask mandates on our children." She urged the group to spread the word about Barthole and her allies, saying "we gotta take all three [school board seats]... these are really important elections."

While the governor has often claimed "data" informed her COVID-19 response, these remarks reveal that she didn't carefully examine the evidence on virus spread in schools. Instead, she jumped at the chance to help parents take hybrid learning options and mask wearing off the table. She listened more to an echo chamber of people like Barthole than to Iowa's top infectious disease experts.

Since long before the pandemic, Reynolds' approach to governing has been to promote the interests of Iowans who share her views, rather than balancing the concerns of diverse stakeholders. That leadership style is not ideal under normal circumstances and has had deadly consequences in the age of COVID-19.

Reynolds continually falls back on well-rehearsed talking points: we opened schools "safely and responsibly," "parental control is local control," "I trust Iowans to do the right thing." The truth is, Iowa schools are now unable to implement any meaningful practices to combat the Delta variant, which is several times more transmissible than coronavirus strains circulating last year.

And while Reynolds is a broken record about "parental control," she only supports parental choices that align with her own biases. A year ago, she felt it was "irresponsible" for elected leaders to "not pay attention" to people like Barthole. Thanks to the governor's decisions, the many thousands of Iowans who want their kids in schools that follow CDC guidance (masks required, social distancing, testing and quarantine protocols after exposure to COVID-19) now have zero options. Those parents never had an opportunity to "strategize" with Reynolds or give her feedback in private Zoom meetings.

The U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Division is investigating whether state bans on mask mandates in schools prevent students with disabilities "from accessing in-person learning equally." While federal government action is welcome, Iowans need to do their part by electing school board members who take COVID mitigation seriously.

UPDATE: Barthole told KCCI-TV's Amanda Rooker on August 31,

“The governor and I do share the same goal of the importance of having your kids go to school full time and letting parents decide what's best for them if, you know, they wear masks at school, and not the government,” Barthole said. “So again, it was open to anybody in the public. Anybody that wanted to come could have come and she surprised us all by being there with us.”

It would be odd if Barthole didn't coordinate with Reynolds' staff while planning her kickoff event, since the two women seem to have communicated regularly last year when seeking to fully reopen schools.

Do you have audio or video footage from a campaign event for an Iowa city or school board candidate? Share it confidentially with Laura Belin.

Top image: Screenshot from Governor Kim Reynolds' August 2021 interview on WHO-13's "The Insiders."

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