As COVID-19 cases continue to rise and Dubuque County school officials bemoan having their hands tied, Iowa’s ban on local school districts issuing mask mandates to slow the spread is steadily accumulating lawsuits.
The bill that contained the ban was passed by only Republicans in the Iowa House and Senate in the closing hours of the 2021 Legislative Session, then quickly signed into law by Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Now that schools are in session and positive COVID-19 cases are increasing, if modestly so far, in area classrooms, the bill has been hit by a steadily increasing stream of lawsuits and investigations.
On Aug. 26, Reynolds was sued by a Council Bluffs mother over the ban and its potential impact on her children. That mother amended her lawsuit this week to include claims that the Iowa law violates both the state and federal constitutions.
Also this week, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it was launching an investigation into the possibility that the law violates students’ and parents’ civil rights.
“The department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely,” U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement.
Then, on Friday, a group of 11 parents of students with disabilities came forward with a second lawsuit against the state over the bill.
Reynolds, though, has not swayed in her defense and even pride of the bill. In a press conference Friday, she compared COVID-19 to the many health risks children face at school.
“As is common every single year when school starts, students are exposed to a number of viruses and can become ill,” she said, in a prepared statement. “We have to find a way to live with it in a responsible, balanced and sustainable way. That means keeping kids home when they’re sick, parents talking to their doctors about vaccines — not just for COVID vaccines, but also those for any others necessary to keep their children healthy.”
In response to a reporter’s question, she declined to recommend that students wear masks, although she did promote COVID-19 vaccination.
Reynolds has faced widespread criticism for having signed and now defending the law, from Democrats and health officials both in Iowa and beyond.
Iowa Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, joined that criticism this week.
“The governor’s mistakes and political posturing have put Iowa in the national spotlight once again,” she said in her weekly newsletter. “We all want students and educators to have a safe, healthy and uninterrupted year of learning. However, as COVID cases begin to spike again, there is growing concern that Iowa communities and schools don’t have the tools they need to respond to local conditions.”
Eastern Iowa’s Republican lawmakers — state and federal — have said nothing publicly since the most recent lawsuit or the federal investigation were announced. But, U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, voiced support for Reynolds’ handling of the pandemic amidst schools opening generally.
“@IAGovernor is spot on here!” she tweeted. “Iowa has led the way to reopen our economy and schools safely, and I agree with the governor: the best way to keep our state moving forward and healthy is for more people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Hinson visits Elkader
Rep. Hinson also visited Elkader this week, in response to the devastating floods from the Turkey River there.
“I wanted to come and connect with our local partners who obviously worked through the night to protect the city,” she said in a video. “This doesn’t stop when the water goes down. There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done. We’re ready to work with them ... Flood mitigation and prevention is a priority to me.”
The bipartisan infrastructure bill advanced by the U.S. Senate includes billions of dollars that could be used for such mitigation and prevention projects. It is expected to be taken up by the House once Congress returns to Washington D.C. later this month.
Bustos crosses the bridge
U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Illinois, spent time in Iowa this past week, attending an event in Indianola with U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa. The pair serve as co-chairs of the New Democrat Coalition’s Rural Reinvestment Task Force.
Ernst, Koelker meet
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, also visited this week, promoting tourism. She met with Iowa Sen. Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville, at an event for the Iowa Restaurant Association.
“Resourceful! Our conversations included tourism and our industry challenges,” Koelker tweeted.
Evers continues vax incentive
Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers last week announced he would extend a program that gives $100 to residents who receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The program began on Aug. 20 and was set to expire tomorrow. The program will now run through Sept. 19.
Since Aug. 20 and Sept. 1, more than 65,000 Wisconsin residents got their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Evers’ extension earned him kudos and promotion from U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis. — who represents Crawford County — on social media. Pocan, for his part, helped found the COVID-19 Global Vaccination Caucus, which he will co-chair.
Democratic candidate for Iowa’s U.S. Senate seat and former U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer secured two big union endorsements this past week for her Democratic primary bid — from United Steelworkers and the American Federation of Government Employees.