August 19, 2022

Facing increased absence rates at Newton schools, the board deliberates its limited options

School board wants to push boundaries on masks

School board members know the Newton Community School District is prohibited by law from enforcing mask mandates for students and teachers, but they also feel the need to push back against the state in order to protect kids and reduce the growing absence rates.

Within the first three weeks of school, more than 10 percent of Newton students were absent due to sickness in four out of seven buildings. Data from Aurora Heights Elementary, Woodrow Wilson Elementary, Berg Middle School and the Newton High School was reported to state and local health officials.

During a special meeting to ratify the district’s Return-to-Learn plan on Tuesday, Sept. 7, board members expressed their frustrations to administrators. Unable to promote mask wearing or strongly communicate safety measures, board members find themselves in a battle between state law and student safety.

If there was no danger of losing state funds or facing other repercussions, school board member Travis Padget would be in favor of requiring students and faculty to wear masks. If they can’t get the numbers under control, the alternatives, he said, would be a return to teaching at home and extending classes through June.

“I’m all about pushing the boundaries as far as we can, because I believe they should be wearing masks,” Padget said. “…If I wasn’t afraid of losing funding, I would say, ‘Masks 100 percent. To heck with the governor. Do it.’ But I’m also afraid of losing funding and not having a district.”

Cody Muhs, president of the NCSD Board of Education, shared Padget’s exact sentiments and gathered consensus from fellow board members that perhaps stronger communications about mask wearing was needed. Muhs asked the superintendent to research the best way to do that without crossing legal lines.

Newton Superintendent Tom Messinger said the strength of the language to recommend these safety precautions will be different for students than it is for staff. The school board can’t do anything that would give staff the perception that failure to wear a mask would impact their evaluations or employment, he said.

Messinger recalled how some schools last year had no mask requirements and as a result saw major outbreaks, which ultimate reversed their decisions. But the COVID-19 variants the state experienced last year are not the same as the ones Newton is being affected by now. The delta variant is spreading much quicker.

School board member Graham Sullivan said the board needs to do what they can to keep kids safe, lamenting what little control the district has in this scenario.

“I have a kid that’s home sick right now, and obviously I don’t want them to miss any more school than they have to,” Sullivan said. “Whatever it is that we need to do to keep our kids healthy, I’m in support of that. It’s just a very frustrating position to be in when we don’t really have local control.”

Combined with the politics associated with the pandemic and mask wearing, school employees could be putting themselves at risk of losing their licenses or see themselves unable to secure a teaching job in the state “for a period of time” or “possibly forever” if they try to enforce mask requirements, Messinger said.

School board member Donna Cook said, “That’s ridiculous. I’m sorry, but it is.”

Upcoming discussions at school board meetings may determine whether the school board can increase its language to recommend health official guidance. Cook said she feels “pretty strongly” that the school district needs to protect its students, especially when delta variant cases among children are increasing.

“I feel like we need to be where our kids need us to be,” Cook said. “And I think that’s protecting them, regardless of the politics.”

Newton school district is struggling to keep numbers down

Newton regularly posts its student illness absence rates on a publicly available spreadsheet; the student absences each day represent the number of students who are reported absent from school for any illness or medical appointment.

According to the data, 246 students in the school district — more than 10% of the district’s population — were marked absent due to illness on Sept. 8. Overall, the district as seen a steady, upward trend of absences from the start of the 2021-2022 school year, which officially began Aug. 23.

It’s not a trend the district likes to see, Messinger said, but the data may not be telling the full story since even appointments are considered sick absences.

“This could be a dentist appointment, counseling appointment or any other appointment that gets you checked out by a physician or any medical purpose,” he said. “The point of this explanation is to communicate that not all absences in the reporting are indicators of being sick.”

In response, the district will be asking for more clarification from parents in order for administrators to get a better idea of what they’re up against. Newton will also begin sending students home with less hesitation than previous years and send staff home who display signs of illness.

“It does come across sometimes that we’re being nosey, but, realistically, as one of the nurses stated to me today: It does give them a better idea of what they’re dealing with in school when they can also see some of the trends or patterns developing by knowing more,” Messinger said.

School board member Mark Thayer said it is beneficial to classify true medical leave or absences from appointments.

“The school nurses I know are working extremely hard through this,” Thayer said. “I’d like to thank everyone involved with this. I know this is something we’re probably going to have to continue to look at and evaluate over the coming months, unfortunately.”

School district staff have reported absent, too. Messinger said Newton is struggling to find substitute teachers in all capacities. Transportation staff, teachers, paras, custodians and cooks are in high demand. As of Sept. 7, the Newton school district has 17 positions unfilled.

Although Newton was able cover the classrooms using existing staff, the district still has to make adjustments. For instance, the district decided it will stop approving staff absences which pull teachers away from buildings for meetings. Messinger noted this is only temporary and is by no means a long-term solution.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or

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.