Dubuque Community School Board members on Monday struggled to reach a consensus on whether to require masks in schools.
Board members discussed the issue and listened to the latest data on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic in the school district during a meeting of the board’s Facilities/Support Services Committee.
All seven members of the board attended the meeting, which at times became tense as members disagreed about what course the district should take while acknowledging the challenges that politicization of pandemic-related issues create to charting a path forward.
“The politicization of this makes it really, really hard to come up with any kind of solution that the community can embrace,” Board Member Tom Barton said.
No decisions were made at the meeting, and the matter is expected to come to the board for possible action at its regular meeting on Monday, Oct. 11.
District leaders have discussed masking policies since a federal judge last month temporarily ordered the state to stop enforcing a law that banned school boards from requiring masks. Several parents and a disability rights group have sued the state to put an end to the law, arguing that it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.
A special Dubuque school board meeting two weeks ago ended with members deadlocked both over whether to wait to make a decision on masking policies until the lawsuit is resolved and whether to reinstate a mask mandate.
At this week’s meeting, Superintendent Stan Rheingans shared with board members several data points related to COVID-19 in the district.
As of Monday, the district was reporting 27 active, positive COVID-19 cases among students and four among staff. At each school, active cases make up less than 1% of that building’s total population.
Rheingans said that of 1,488 students notified that they potentially had been exposed to COVID-19, seven have later tested positive.
As of Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rated the level of community transmission in Dubuque County as “high,” its highest rating.
Rheingans also told board members that district officials are aware of 27 school districts in the state, out of 327, with some kind of masking requirement. Many of the state’s largest districts are requiring masks in some capacity.
Dubuque School Board President Tami Ryan said she believes the district’s current COVID-19 numbers do not show a need for a mask mandate. She said families who feel more comfortable with their child wearing a mask can have them do so, but a majority of people she has heard from do not want a masking requirement.
She also argued that the CDC, which recommends universal indoor masking at schools, has become politicized.
“To keep saying people want this, well then, wear it,” she said. “... To force something onto somebody for the comfort of other people as opposed to allowing you to choose what you want to do is mind-boggling to me to keep forcing this issue.”
Board Member Nancy Bradley said she appreciated the district’s data but noted that some students might catch COVID-19 but not show any symptoms, and parents may or may not choose to have their children tested.
She also pointed to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that schools implement mask wearing and an opinion from district attorneys that not having a mask mandate could expose the district to potential liability based on the federal judge’s temporary ruling.
“When I look at risk, and I’m reading the American Academy of Pediatrics saying, get your kids, get your staff, get your visitors masked, to me that’s not a very politicized kind of thing,” Bradley said.
Rheingans noted that district staff work with students who have individualized education programs and need accommodations, such as having teachers and paraprofessionals wear masks when around those children.
Board Vice President Jim Prochaska said discussions about masking tend to have focused on extremes — masks for everyone all the time or no mask requirements for anyone. He said he hoped board members could find some kind of middle ground to reach an agreement while acknowledging that they won’t be able to make everyone happy.
“I believe that this board can come to something that will be mutually acceptable, and probably unacceptable for a lot, but we can’t go with the far extremes,” Prochaska said.
Ahead of Monday’s meeting, Rheingans discussed with the Telegraph Herald a social media post stating that he had spoken at a meeting of the Dubuque County Patriots, a local group that opposes mask requirements.
Rheingans said he speaks with any group that invites him, including those representing various political parties and social groups. He said he was invited to the Dubuque County Patriots meeting before the school board’s special meeting last month and answered group members’ questions about district processes on a variety of topics, including COVID-19 and curriculum.
He said he did not entertain any questions on the direction he thought the school board might take about whether to require masks.