As the beginning of school creeps closer, Central DeWitt administrators have decided to require students and teachers to wear masks in school buildings and on school buses. 

Superintendent Dan Peterson said that while public opinion varies greatly on many topics related to the reopening of schools, the district is formulating its plan based on guidance from local health officials and the Iowa Department of Education.

“Two months ago I was completely against using masks in school,” Peterson said during a July 29 school board meeting. “I told the board at that point if we get to a point where we need masks we should just do virtual (learning).

“As a superintendent, I have to stand with something, and what I’m standing with is public health, the Department of Education, and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).”

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on July 24 said schools must prioritize in-person learning this school year, and has declined to require mask usage in Iowa schools. She also said local government jurisdictions can’t enforce their own mask mandates without her permission.

The Iowa Department of Education has suggested school districts not require face masks for students and teachers. However, schools can pivot from that recommendation if they choose by using guidance from local health officials and legal counsel, the Department of Education said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends students — and any children over the age of 2 — wear masks in public. It also recommends all teachers and school staff wear a protective face covering. Masks can help stop the virus’ transmission, the CDC said. 

Per guidance from Clinton County Community Health Manager Michele Cullen and other health officials, Peterson said teachers can conduct “mask breaks” to help keep students comfortable. The breaks would enable a teacher to take a group of students outside to sit in a socially distant circle and take part in an independent activity.

“They are going to need breaks,” Peterson said of the students. 

Peterson cited a conversation with Cullen in which the recent uptick in cases was discussed. 

“She mentioned (wearing masks in school) is going to continue until people take it seriously,” Peterson said. 

Peterson and Cullen talked about outdoor classrooms being a possibility as well.

Iowa is the only state in the U.S. without any kind of mask mandate that is also requiring schools to reopen classrooms to students, according to data provided by Masks4All, a volunteer organization that advocates for more mask-wearing.

Mask exemptions for students who cannot wear them due to medical reasons will be handled on a case-by-case basis by district nurse Ann Bixby, Peterson said. 

Teachers will also be required to wear face coverings in school buildings. Bus drivers will wear a face shield and mask as students are entering and exiting the buses. Custodians will wear shields and masks, as will school nurses.

School officials have voiced concern that they cannot guarantee social distancing in schools. 

Students and staff will be asked to take their temperature at home daily and perform a self-screening before coming to the school buildings, Peterson said. 

As the situation is still fluid, Peterson urged parents to be flexible as the start of school nears. 

“We understand (parents) would like us to choose one plan and commit to that decision, but the current circumstances make that impossible. I can tell you we’re going to start on Aug. 24 and once we get closer to that date and know what health conditions look like in our area we will be able to determine whether we’re going to be in-person, hybrid, or virtual. This is why we strongly encourage (parents) to have a plan in place for all scenarios.”

Online dilemma

A survey sent to all district parents received 661 responses as of July 28, and 89% of those parents said they would be sending their child to school Aug. 24.  Eight percent of those families said they would prefer to keep their student home with online instruction provided through the school.

Up until very recently, Central DeWitt has operated with the idea that it would contract with a third-party educational company, Edgenuity, to provide that instruction. 

However, that line of thinking is shifting as administrators analyze the financials and weigh the logistics of offering the classes in-house.

Peterson said as of July 28, 53 students have opted out of classes, and for them to receive instruction from Edgenuity for the first semester would cost the district around $200,000.

“About half the money we receive for each student would be going directly to (Edgenuity),” Peterson said.  “I would rather keep our tax dollars in the district supporting our staff and keeping our jobs right here rather than sending that money elsewhere.”

Peterson said the district prides itself in being innovative and believes it could provide an in-house online format.

 “My thinking is if anyone can pull it off, it would be us,” he said. “But it’s one thing we need to think about and take our time on.”

Updating parents

The need for ongoing communication from the district to parents has become a challenge, Peterson said last week.

To that end, aside from making use of the district’s website, he has started sending a weekly letter to all district parents via email to keep them abreast of the latest developments within the district.

In his letter last week, he outlined some key rules, including the district’s new mask policy. 

The district has also working on a handbook, which will include various categories of COVID-related information. 

“We will continue to work on that and send it out as we get answers to the questions,” said Central DeWitt Assistant Principal Jen Vance.

Also available on the district’s website is a list of frequently-asked questions that are being answered by administrators as the answers become available

Some of the guidance on those documents includes:

• Students in grades 7-12 will not use lockers; they will keep their backpacks and laptops with them all day. 

• Classrooms in all grades will be adjusted to limit the number of students in one area at one time. 

• Students may not be dropped off at school before 7:30 a.m.

• Handwashing will happen at least five times per day. 

• Disposable utensils and paper products — including paper plates — will be used in all cafeterias. Drinking water will be available in disposable cups in the cafeteria. Drinking fountains will be off, but the water bottle-filling station will be operational. 

• In an effort to limit the amount of students in the nurses’ offices, band aids, paper towels and gloves will be in each classroom to take care of minor first aid. Students with stomach aches will be asked to use the restroom, eat or drink, and stay in the classroom to see if the condition improves.