Daycares and K-12 schools brace for fall without mask mandate

As Johnson County experiences a high transmission rate of COVID-19, daycares and K-12 schools prepare for the new school year without the ability to mandate mask-wearing.


Jerod Ringwald

The sign of St. marks United Methodist Church, which hosts Loving Arms Early Learning Center, is seen on Sunday, Aug. 22.

Meg Doster, News Reporter

Johnson County is experiencing high levels of COVID-19 transmission, leaving educators and parents concerned about how to keep young students ineligible for vaccination safe, as the school year starts.

Michelle Beninga, the head of Willowwind School, said the main concern for the new academic year is the inability to require masks.

While the school strongly encourages teachers, students, and visitors to wear masks, it cannot require masking on school grounds because of a law signed by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in May that bans schools from mandating masks.

Most students who attend Willowwind School, a K-6 private school in Iowa City, are not eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. COVID-19 vaccines are currently available to only those ages 12 and older.

Sam Jarvis, community health manager for Johnson County Public Health, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommend universal masking inside schools.

Beninga said she hopes people follow the recommendations set by the Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends that everyone over the age of 2, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask.

“We are excited for the school year, and we believe that we have safety measures in place to our multi-tiered approach to tackle the pandemic,” Beninga said.

Willowwind’s safety measures state that the school does not envision the use of a hybrid learning model for this school year and hopes to stay in person.

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Jarvis said, with 61 percent of Johnson County fully vaccinated, it is hard to say whether the pandemic is better or worse than it was a year ago.

“We know how important it is for in-person schooling — kids receive so much support,” Jarvis said. “Certainly, their education is predominantly one of the most important things at school. Among so many other benefits, whether it’s socialization or emotional support as well.”

Loving Arms Early Learning Center, an Iowa City daycare, is “strongly encouraging” its 3- to 5-year-old students to wear masks. The daycare uses the app Brightwheel to monitor if children in its care show symptoms of COVID-19.

“If you have a child or staff member that tests positive, we have a specific exclusion policy that we’re using, which has been difficult since the governor passed that new law,” said Kayla Jordan, director of Loving Arms Early Learning Center. “It’s up to the individual organization to develop their own exclusion policies.”

Loving Arms’ exclusion policy is not specific to COVID-19 but excludes children from care if they show symptoms of illness such as rash, fever, or vomiting, until a doctor says that the child is healthy. According to the parent handbook for the day care, this is to ensure a healthy environment for all children in its care.

Because of their inability to mandate masks, schools and daycares are limited on what they can do to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in their buildings.

“We want kids in schools, but we would prefer if we were able to do all of the mitigation measures,” Jarvis said. “It is difficult, right there. I’m sure many feel like their hands are tied behind their back in terms of what could be done to keep people safer.”