Many COVID-conscious Iowa parents were mostly worried about the new school year a month ago, but now they’re frustrated too.
For many, they’ve spent the past year at home with their children, limiting trips outside and wearing masks when they did. When they were able, many got vaccinated.
And now they’re facing a school year with fewer strategies in place to mitigate COVID-19 among students and the more infectious Delta variant that’s spread quickly through unvaccinated people, including children 12 and under.
“I have a huge group of moms in our district that went online last year without any hesitation. And this year we’re all like, ‘we’re going in person come hell or high water,’” said Brook Easton, a mom of two in the Iowa City School District, one of which is vaccinated.
She also helped organize the Safe at School sit-in, where parents gathered in front of the Iowa Capitol earlier this month to ask Gov. Kim Reynolds to rescind a law banning school districts from requiring masks.
“We did our time,” Easton said. “We made all the sacrifices that we can make and we are going in person. And if people who don’t want to wear masks aren’t going to wear them, then they stay home this time.”
Many schools across Iowa opened their doors Monday, with different plans in place to handle potential COVID cases. Several Iowa schools extended their sign-up for enrolling in online classes, but few require quarantining if a student tests positive, and classrooms will have a harder time enforcing distancing with more students.
State guidance advises schools to treat COVID like a regular childhood illness.
“They’re not really tracking stuff like they were last year. Everybody’s let their guard down because they don’t have to. Nothing has to be enforced right now,” said LaKeshia Richmond, a mom of three who attend the Ankeny School District.
One of her sons got a mild case of COVID, but he was the only person in their household who did.
Richmond said he ate meals in his room, and he wore a mask when he left it. When all five were together as a family she said they all wore masks, and he didn’t spread COVID to anyone else in the family.
“Those three brothers, they’re thick as thieves,” she said. “They play hard together and they’re always on top of each other and around each other. Clearly, they didn’t do that while he was sick, and we wore masks and it worked.”
Richmond puts a lot of the blame on the virus’ continued spread on local political leaders who haven’t done enough to push better safety measures.
As with most things regarding the pandemic, Reynolds said the decision to wear masks in school should be made by individuals and parents.
Chris Shivers, a father of two Ankeny students, said that’s a cop-out.
“It really is hard to put it on parents because it goes back to the whole fact that masks really more protect others than it protects yourself,” he said. “People aren’t going to make that decision, they’re just going to say, well, no one’s making me so I don’t have to.”
Last week, he and his wife, Anna, attended the back-to-school meeting before school started Monday, and he was disappointed to see how few parents and teachers wore masks.
But these parents agree that children need to be at school in person, regardless of how they handled virtual schooling. Easton, Richmond, and the Shivers said their children are excited about the prospect, and that they don’t mind wearing masks in order to do it.
Anna Shivers said after a year of online school and not seeing friends, her oldest son struggles to relate to other children his age and doctors have said another year of that will be bad for him in the long term.
“He’s used to being with his little brother, which is great. But then he also just kind of missed out on being with other eight-and-nine-year-olds, being a normal eight-or-nine-year-old,” she said.
“It’s the least bad decision right now to send him,” Chris said. “Just hoping for the best is all we can really do right now.”
The parents Starting Line talked to all said they just want last year’s mitigation policies in place with universal contact tracing.
“Let’s get this done. Let’s slow it down. That’s the only way to do it, honestly, and if we put these kids back let’s space them some,” Richmond said. “Just like for the first term or whatever in the school year and see where we are, you know, see if there’s a vaccine out for kids, see if it’s slowing down.”
She pointed out it could always be removed if case rates get under control.
“Gov. Reynolds is a lost cause and it’s going to take our school board to stand up and do the right thing for these kids,” Richmond said.
Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague declared a civil emergency in the city and imposed a mask requirement within city limits, including in schools. But the superintendent there said schools would continue following state law and keep masks voluntary.
“No matter what side of the aisle we’re on, we all want the same thing, we want our kids to be happy and healthy, and we want them to go to school in person,” Easton said. “And we don’t want them to be sick. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them.”
by Nikoel Hytrek