October 26, 2021

MASK MESS: Newton school board unsure what to do even after judge halts mask ban

Superintendent urges staff to get vaccinated, recommends individuals wear masks

Newton Community School District is hesitant to apply rules on face coverings for students and staff, even after a federal judge temporarily stopped the state from enforcing its ban on mask mandates. School board members explained during their meeting Sept. 13 they want legal counsel before making a final decision.

Superintendent Tom Messinger acknowledged the temporary restraining order from U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt — which had been announced and hours before — during the meeting. After speaking with the school district’s attorney, the board is “a long ways away from knowing anything final.”

Messinger said, “It doesn’t mean that we can require masks tomorrow if we wanted to anyway because there’s still a question of: If the governor appeals this, does that mean we have to hold tight with the law in place? Or does it mean we could require that while that appeal is in process?”

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds confirmed she will appeal the federal judge’s decision and uphold the controversial state law. Meanwhile, other schools in the state have already announced they will reimpose mask mandates, including Iowa City Community School District and Des Moines Public Schools.

In order to find out what the legal ramifications are from imposing a mask mandate, some board members suggested a closed session may be in order.

School board member Robyn Friedman questioned if a closed session was the right way to go about it, particularly if the information is helpful to the public. Discussing possible litigation in closed session is legal under Iowa Code, but discussing rules or policies that would be enforced may not be.

Regardless, Messinger expects Newton will know more information in the coming days. Although uncertain of the legal boundaries regarding mask mandates, Messinger assured board members the retraining order does indeed give them more flexibility in the language used when recommending face coverings.

During a special meeting last week, most board members were in favor of using stronger language and pushing the boundaries of state law when promoting masks because of rising absence rates. At the time, more than 10 percent of students in four out of seven Newton schools were absent due to illness.

However, the district was counting medical appointments in its data collections for the first three weeks of school, but has since excluded them along with other non-illness-related absences. As a result, Newton’s absence rates due to illness have dropped below the 10 percent threshold.

On Sept. 13, the district’s combined absence rate due to illness was at 6.69 percent, the lowest its been since Aug. 31; the highest absence rates were in Newton High School (8.35 percent), Emerson Hough Elementary (7.65 percent) and Berg Middle School (7.28 percent).

More recent data from the school shows absence rates have slightly risen.

In response to board members’ request at the special meeting for stronger language regarding masks, the district’s attorneys approved a sample sign that could be posted on school buildings. The sign depicts a mask with the phrase “face masks recommended per guidance from the CDC.”

Friedman is in favor of posting the sign and said the district should have been doing so at the beginning of the school year.

“But we had hesitancy because of concerns about we’ve been told not to use mandates and that (felt) like a mandate, even the words ‘recommended’ or seeing the face of a mask,” Friedman said, noting that if a sign inspires even a few people to put on their masks it’s worth it.

Messinger later received feedback to change the phrase “face masks” to “face coverings.” School board member Mark Thayer said at this point everybody knows masks are recommended by the CDC and that the district shouldn’t interfere with what parents think are best for their children.

“The culture of this community and this state is most people predominantly do not want to or choose to wear a mask,” Thayer said. “I’m fine at the end of the day, if that’s what the board decides, that they want to put a sign up that says, ‘Masks are recommended’ or ‘Follow the CDC guidance.’

“But at the end of the day, I don’t think we need to try to coerce these parents into doing something that they believe may be in the best benefits of their child.”

Thayer, who is also the clinic administrator of the Newton Clinic, is concerned about communications between teachers and students when masks are present. Thayer believes it is a parental choice and said testing score numbers are going down. He then asked the board what they believe is causing that.

“We were closed for two or three weeks in November where we went online. That might be part of it. But I also think the distractions might play a major part of that as well. So being pragmatic, I think everyone knows the CDC is recommending masks. I don’t see why we need to make any addition interventions,” he said.

Cody Muhs, president of the NCSD Board of Education, said people don’t know what to believe right now and that there “are an awful lot of opinions out there.”

“We need to understand that one of the voices at the table,” he said. “We’re going to be another piece of information for the community one way or another. I’m just not so sure it’s fair to say that everyone just already knows what to do, because A) things are changing and B) things have changed from the last two years.”

In a letter addressed to the community, Messinger said the district is continuing to monitor COVID-19 and its impact on schools. He also asked families to consider the well-being of their children and others, and refrain from sending students to school when they are ill.

“We also urge our staff members to get vaccinated if they are able,” Messinger said. “And, all individuals are strongly encouraged to follow CDC recommendations for public health, including masking.”

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

Christopher Braunschweig

Reporter with a strong penchant for community journalism.