Late-breaking news ahead of Monday’s Indianola School Board meeting had the attention of school board members and drew a handful of parents to the podium.
Just hours before the meeting, it was announced that U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt ordered a temporary restraining order against an Iowa law that bans mask mandates in schools. The law, Iowa Code section 280.31, was enacted last May.
Superintendent Art Sathoff pointed out how quickly the legal battle involving masks in schools is changing.
“Two days ago, there was a state judge that denied an injunction that would’ve overturned the prohibition of mask mandates in schools,” he said. “Then, just this afternoon around four o’clock, there was a federal judge that temporarily blocked the legislation that prohibits mask mandates.”
Masks weren’t an action item on Monday’s school board agenda, but the federal decision sparked a discussion. Board member Ken Bresnan suggested that the district wait for guidance from the Iowa Association of School Boards.
He pointed out that Gov. Kim Reynolds has already stated that she would appeal the decision.
“We will appeal and exercise every legal option we have to uphold state law and defend the rights and liberties afforded to any American citizen protected by our constitution,” according to a statement on the governor's website.
“Is it the type of thing where an appeal takes two years? Or does it automatically happen quickly in some situations?” Bresnan asked. “I think I would like to know some guidance on procedure.”
Sathoff also noted the use of the word “temporary” in regard to the federal restraining order, which is to remain in effect until the court issues an order for a preliminary injunction.
“I think I wouldn’t recommend the board have a special meeting tomorrow or later this week or make a decision that then could change. … We had changing guidance and changing quarantine rules and contact tracing (last year). We did make several adjustments throughout the year, and I think the adjustments are really tough,” Sathoff said.
Three parents of Indianola students reacted quickly to the ruling, taking the mic during the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting. They all asked that the Indianola Community School District continue to make masks optional.
Andrea Hackett said that two of her four children attend school here, and last year’s local mask mandate “really impacted” her daughter’s learning.
“I just want to let you know that I do support parent choice as well as far as masks,” she told the board.
Board member Laurie Abernathy pointed out that students are able to wear masks now if they choose – and most are opting not to.
“The parents can make their own decisions now,” she said. “I mean, I’ve been to the schools, and I see maybe a few on. They can wear them if they want.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Sathoff suggested that the board “continues to watch what goes on” and perhaps take up the issue again. He added that the district has reinstated its tracking of COVID cases to help parents make educated decisions about mask use.
The district had posted information about the number of COVID cases on its website last year, but hadn’t done so at the beginning of this school year, in part because the Iowa Department of Public Health recommended approaching COVID like any childhood illness.
Administrators adjusted their sails again last week, though.
“This is week two. I started putting it (tracking) up once we started seeing positive cases,” Sathoff clarified after Monday’s meeting.
The dashboard can be found here on the ICSD website. Numbers are updated weekly and reflect student and staff cases at each school. Totals fewer than six are categorized “between 0 and 5.”
The cases, according to an update posted Monday, stand at “between 0 and 5” at Emerson, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Whittier elementary schools. There are currently six at Irving Elementary, 17 at the middle school, and nine at the high school.
“I do think that parents can make a more educated decision if they see a spike in a certain building and have a concern,” Sathoff told the school board, referring to the benefit of the revamped dashboard.
“If they believe a mask will help with that,” he continued, “and they haven’t been sending them (students) with one before, they can make that decision.”