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In its guidance released Thursday for coming back to classrooms, the Iowa Department of Education discouraged K-12 schools from requiring face masks when staff and students return.

Covering the mouth is recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For schools, the CDC has recommended masks when feasible and especially when physical distancing is difficult.

Iowa’s guidance, while acknowledging schools “may not be able to guarantee that physical distancing can be met in all school settings throughout the entire school day,” does not recommend districts require the face coverings.

Instead, the department recommends teaching and reinforcing to prevent stigmas “associated with the use or non-use of facial coverings to support a respectful, inclusive, and supportive school environment.”

The information published Thursday is the department’s “final high-level guidance,” said Iowa Department of Education spokeswoman Heather Doe, and is based on current public health conditions in the state. New guidance will not be published unless public health conditions change.

The Iowa Department of Education is also taking guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics which released this guidance last week:

Schools are critical to addressing racial and social inequity. School closure and virtual educational modalities have had a differential impact at both the individual and population level for diverse racial, ethnic, and vulnerable groups, according to the guidance. Evidence from spring 2020 school closures points to negative impacts on learning. Children and adolescents also have been placed at higher risk of morbidity and mortality from physical or sexual abuse, substance use, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.

“The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” according to the guidance. These coordinated interventions intend “to mitigate, not eliminate, risk” of COVID-19.

On Friday, the department released a new statement saying the guidance “needs further clarification.”

School facilities have been closed since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, though Gov. Kim Reynolds allowed voluntary summer activities and some sports to resume this month. All school activities may resume July 1.

Although cases in Iowa largely have been among adults, health experts have cautioned that children can be carriers of the disease, and the CDC still is investigating cases of Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children associated with COVID-19. Cedar Rapids hospitals last month treated at least two children with the syndrome.

The Iowa Department of Education guidance goes on to outline a total of 10 health and safety requirements for public school districts and accredited private schools when they reopen.

Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek, who represents the state’s largest teachers’ union, said in a statement Thursday he was “deeply disappointed” in the guidance.

“The Iowa Department of Education’s reopening guidance is inconsistent with CDC Guidance, common sense and good public policy and we cannot recommend support,” said Beranek, a West Des Moines teacher, in the statement.

Executive Director Roark Horn of School Administrators of Iowa, whose members include school superintendents and principals, said he expected more details from the department.

“The Reopening Guidance did not line up with what school leaders were expecting,” Horn said. “Based on previous guidance, such as that for baseball and softball, administrators were anticipating more specifics for things like social distancing and the use of face coverings.”

Recommendations

In all, the department guidelines recommended:

• That sick staff and students stay home;

• Not screening students and staff when they arrive at school, as one symptom might not indicate the presence of a communicable disease and some individuals might be asymptomatic;

• Teaching and reinforcing hand washing or, if soap is not available, teaching the use of hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol content;

• Protecting the confidentiality of staff and students “in their personal health who may or may not wear a face covering;”

• Providing the appropriate personal protective equipment and training for staff whose duties put them at medium- to high-risk of exposure to COVID-19;

• Indicating, should districts require more than what department guidance outlines, that those measures are a local decision;

• Implementing preventive health changes if a student or staff member becomes sick;

• Posting signs about how to stop the spread of illness;

• Having a framework for routine cleaning practices of facilities, including high-touch surface areas and buses.

If schools receive reports of a student or staff member who has contracted COVID-19, the guidance recommended officials maintain confidentiality of those reports and contact their local public health agency directly. The agency may require contact tracing and self-isolation measures.

Local school districts can opt to require more than what the state guidance outlined, but “should only do so in consultation with public health and legal counsel,” according to the department.

“The words schools use when communicating matter,” the guidance reads. “ ... Schools are reminded that when not using the Department’s guidance word for word, they should indicate this was a locally-determined distinction.”

School boards are authorized, if the governor has proclaimed a public health disaster, to close schools due to a coronavirus outbreak.

Those decisions, according to Thursday’s guidance, would be made at the local level.

The guidance does not address how schools will restart instruction in the fall, a question districts themselves should answer in the “Return to Learn” plans that Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo previously required.

The department has provided a 40-page support document to districts as they develop those plans, spokeswoman Doe said, which focus on seven key areas: leadership, health and safety, academic standards, social-emotional health and behavior, equity and data.

Return to Learn plans are due to the department from each public school district and accredited private school by July 1 and should account for various reopening scenarios.

Which scenario districts ultimately choose — in-person schooling, virtual classes or a hybrid of the two — will be left to them to decide, the department’s Bureau Chief for School Improvement Amy Williamson said.

The state expects the upcoming back-to-school season will vary based on local contexts.

“In some ways, that is liberating for local decision-makers to be able to determine what’s best for them,” Williamson said. “In some ways, it’s not satisfying because you’d like someone to tell you, ‘here are the conditions under which a hybrid model is appropriate, here are the conditions under which it’s appropriate to have kids in the building, or to move to your continuous (distanced) model.’”

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