Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

What’s a Superintendent to Do When Public Health Guidelines and State Laws Clash?

One Iowa district leader shares his emotional response
By Mark Lane — July 12, 2021 3 min read
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At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, my school district’s board of directors unanimously approved a reopening plan that communicated a commitment to following the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 guidance. The board and I felt a responsibility to do everything in our power to create safe and healthy conditions for students, staff, and families.

However, on May 20, the governor of Iowa signed legislation banning mask mandates by city, county, or school district officials at a time when the CDC continued to clearly recommend individuals wear masks at school. The anxiety, confusion, and anger among staff, students, and parents I observed that morning made me feel powerless in serving and protecting our people. As leaders, we have no greater responsibility than our duty to care for those we lead.

Every year, the school district I lead has three to six teachers who are blessed with being pregnant during the school year. Those individuals continue to serve other children as they prepare to welcome their own into the world. Our mask mandate was in place to give those teachers the peace of mind needed to do their job effectively.

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We have staff who provide love and care to elderly parents. They work in close quarters with dozens and even hundreds of students and fellow staff members each day and then act with love and care for their dependent family members. Our mask mandate was in place to give those staff members the comfort to serve others while still serving those they love most.

We have students who live with high-risk grandparents, parents, and family members. They spend every day surrounded by their peers on our buses, in our classrooms, and on our playgrounds. Then they go home and give hugs to those they love. They sit on the couch together and watch a movie and at the dinner table, talking and laughing. Our mask mandate was in place to give those students and families the opportunity to feel safe at school and safe at home.

My wife is currently battling cancer and is an employee of the Decorah district. My 11-year-old son is a Type I diabetic and a middle schooler. My 97-year-old grandmother lives in an assisted living facility. Perhaps these personal realities heighten my empathy for those who love people most at risk of serious issues if they become infected with COVID-19.

The Decorah Community school district mask mandate was never a measure intended to force people to protect themselves. It was a measure put in place to ensure that the claim that we are a community of care was more than just words.

In the immediate aftermath of the new law overturning our mask mandate, that pregnant teacher had to struggle to do her job. That associate who cares for an elderly parent was less able to focus on work. That student who lives with a grandparent with a heart condition was less able to learn. And I worried about the choices of those who came into contact with my wife and son as they went to work and school.

When I could not practice social distancing, I continued to wear my mask for our teachers, employees, and students. I encouraged everyone to demonstrate the same care for those around them.

When we return to school for the 2021-22 school year, COVID-19 will continue to shape the world around us. I expect opinions about risks, mitigation strategies, vaccines, and what schools should do will continue to be broad and firmly held. I will continue to root my decisions and recommendations to our board in our duty to care. We will do what we can to create safe, healthy, and engaging environments in which to work and learn.

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