April 22, 2024

NCSD upholds Iowa laws but other pandemic practices stay in place

District maintains cleaning procedures, water fountains prohibited

Following the direction of state health officials and the controversial new laws signed by the governor, the Newton Community School District will not require students or faculty to be vaccinated this upcoming school year nor implement mask mandates, but some other pandemic practices will still be administered.

During the Aug. 10 school board meeting, superintendent Tom Messinger said teachers are to maintain classroom cleaning procedures for the foreseeable future. Water fountains will no longer be used in any of the buildings, either; instead, students will need to use and refill water bottles.

Messinger reiterated clarifying points from the Iowa Department of Public Health, Iowa Department of Education and the Newton school district’s health and safety committee regarding return-to-learn procedures now that the state has prohibited mask mandates in schools and business under HF847.

Per the new law, schools can’t adopt or enforce policies that requires employees, students or the public to wear a mask while on school property.

“If people aren’t comfortable being in school without a mask, they are free to wear one,” Messinger said, noting that the district talked about the importance of language and trying to not making it sound like there’s anything wrong with wearing a mask. “…Masks are recommended indoors.”

Vaccinations also cannot be required by Newton schools, Messinger said, but “if they would receive full approval of the vaccinations, that could open the door for that type of requirement down the road for Iowa schools.” Until then the state encourages schools to treat COVID-19 like any other illness in their district.

IDPH instructs school districts to follow the influenza model, Messinger said, which means contact tracing on an individual basis is not practiced. Officials will focus on conducting case investigations and tracing efforts based on breakouts and vulnerable populations.

However, schools must still report to IDPH when more than 10 percent of students are absent due to illness. Messinger said when the state gets notified Newton is above 10 percent then the Jasper County Health Department will contact the school to provide best practices and come up with a plan.

Isolation and quarantine orders will not be issued for teachers and students exposed to COVID-19. State guidance also states that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order in February imposing mask requirement on public transportation. Messinger noted how this might affect school bus rides.

“Schools are in discussion about this and how this falls into the relationship with House File 847 … Right before the board meeting I got an update from school attorneys on that transportation requirement,” Messinger said, reiterating some of the “high points” from the lawyers’ findings:

• “Generally true that federal law will prevail over a conflicting state law; however, there’s no clear legal consensus about whether an order from the CDC should be given the weight of law over a contradictory state law.

• “Courts that have looked at this issue in context have been split in their holdings, thus we cannot provide definitive guidance on how a court would rule on this issue.

• “We tend to believe the more immediate risk likely comes from acting or being perceived to act in violation of Iowa Code … however, we cannot guarantee that failure to enforce the CDC’s orders would be without consequences.”

Messinger concluded Newton does not have an answer to questions surrounding masks on buses. Close quarters, the CDC claims, increases a person’s risk of “getting and spreading COVID-19 by bringing people in close contact with others, often for prolonged periods, and exposing them to frequently touched surfaces.”

If the Newton school district can’t enforce masks in the classrooms, Messinger said it would be very difficult to enforce them on buses. Particularly when the state, in terms of disciplinary actions, says a school bus is an extension of the classroom. Direction is still unclear.

Cleaning procedures from the previous school year are here to stay. Messinger said realistically it is best to keep those practices in place forever. Mitigating the spread of germs will be most successful if teachers continue to clean and disinfect surfaces. Custodial staff will also continue to deep clean rooms.

To also help limit the spread of germs, the district is prohibiting the use of water fountains. School board member Mark Thayer said he was in favor of every change except the water fountains. Messinger said it’s difficult to effectively disinfect them when some younger students can’t use them appropriately.

Messinger stressed if students or staff feel sick they should stay home.

School board member Robyn Friedman asked if signs recommending people wear masks indoors will be posted on the buildings and buses. Messinger confirmed they will and that recommendation will be verbal as well. Families will also be notified of health officials’ recommendations.

School board member Travis Padget wanted to know if there have been discussions or teacher training supporting parental guidance. For instance, when the governor removed the mask mandate in the spring, Padget said he still asked his children to wear masks because of a transplant recipient in the family.

“And then they were not being supported wearing their masks in the classroom,” he said. “We had asked that they wear them. We asked that they wear them all day. It wasn’t supported by the teachers. And it was frustrating.”

Messinger didn’t have an answer for Padget and said he was unaware situations like that existed. However, Messinger said the district does need to support families’ wishes and communicate with the students. The downside of that is the district can’t enforce the children to keep the mask on.

Until 2023, the district’s Return-to-Learn plan will be reviewed every six months. Surveys are still in place for the school to receive feedback, Messinger said.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.