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Southeast Iowa Return to Learn plans continue to adapt to COVID-19

Published: Oct. 11, 2021 at 5:56 PM CDT
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OTTUMWA, Iowa (KYOU) - Masks will not be required in Ottumwa Schools. That’s what Superintendent Mike McGrory recommended at the last Ottumwa School Board meeting.

However, school board member Nancy Manson asked to vote on masks at the next board meeting as an action item. She mentioned waiting to see if the federal judge’s block of Iowa’s mask mandate ban would be extended. And while the block continues, Manson has changed her mind. The school board’s secretary tells KYOU Manson rescinded her request for a vote the day after the meeting after speaking with the Superintendent. Manson explains it became apparent to her that the recommendation “was not a change in the district policy - his recommendation - and therefore we didn’t need to vote upon it.”

Manson also mentioned her term ending within a month. She says she wants to leave such a volatile issue up to a new board.

This is as the district’s COVID-19 numbers aren’t changing much - a .05 change in reported student absences in the last two weeks. So, for now, Ottumwa Schools will continue to be mask-optional.

Speaking to the director of Unit Nine of the Iowa State Education Association, Carol Haupert, she’s seen reactions to mask mandates “all over the board”. While school boards choosing mask mandates are rare in Unit Nine, some boards are deciding to required masks.

One such district is the Fairfield Community School District. It is also seeing higher absences compared to Ottumwa Schools - averaging around 6.52% of students out over the last four weeks. Fairfield Community School District requires masks based on the CDC’s community transmission levels - if a county is labelled substantial or high. The latest data from the CDC shows every Iowa county falls in those parameters.

Another district has a different policy when it comes to masks: the Van Buren County Community School District. Its system is based on the percent of Van Buren county with active cases. Van Buren Superintendent Jeremy Hissem explains “the mitigation strategies would evolve depending upon the local outbreak.” According to the Van Buren District website, just .73% of the county has COVID, putting Van Buren schools in the green phase. That means masks are only recommended, not required. But those restrictions will change if more and more people in the county get COVID-19 - like a few weeks ago, when the numbers put the district into the yellow phase. Masks were required for three days, then it was back to green. Hissem says this kind of system is “complicated”, but says his district did fine last year with a similar system.

However, that policy could change. The Van Buren School Board will vote on it at their next meeting.

COVID-19 policy changes are common, according to several Superintendents. “Nothing’s set in stone,” Hissem explains.

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