Just after midnight on May 20, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law that made Iowa one of the first states with an active ban on mask mandates in schools and businesses. In an interview the next day, Mark Lane, the superintendent of schools in Decorah, Iowa, described how his school community responded to the new law. Lane’s interview with Education Week has been edited for length and clarity.
When I woke up at six o’clock [the day the law was signed], there was an email from the deputy director of the Iowa department of education saying mask mandates were illegal. I started crafting a message to families, sitting at my kitchen table drinking coffee. I wrote a message indicating what had occurred, what that meant for us as a district. I put in a link to the CDC guidance that came out on Saturday, saying the CDC has made it clear that they continue to recommend face masks be worn at school, and while we no longer have the ability to mandate that, I continue to strongly encourage you to do so.
We had kids who showed up [at school that day] very excited that no more masks, no more masks. And we had kids that were afraid that people were not going to be masked. We had staff who were afraid. More of the older students came to school without their masks on. At our elementary buildings, most students still had their masks on. There was one student who told another student, hey, you don’t have to wear that mask anymore, and attempted to reach up and grab it off their face. There were some kids waving their masks [in the air] on the buses, like, woo-hoo, we’re excited.
I received one email from a parent saying Governor Reynolds was right. And I’ve received at least 20 saying I’m so disappointed this happened. In our district, we’ve [had a mask mandate since last summer] and we’ve been so consistent in our communication that people know where we stand. I think there is sentiment out there in the community that this is a celebratory thing. And they know that it would be just sort of rubbing our faces in it [to say something about the new law]. And, you know, we’re all “Iowa nice” here. We don’t do that to each other.
There were a number of Iowa school districts that suspended mask-wearing well before yesterday. It’s become such a political thing in our state. I mean, I have friends who are superintendents who over the last couple of months have needed to ask law enforcement to be at board meetings for crowd control because of people coming to make public comments [to] get these masks off our kids. I’m just grateful that that isn’t how it’s been in Decorah. Yesterday was the first time I have felt like my mask is a political statement. Because our legislature and our governor had said it’s not necessary, and I was standing up and saying I think it’s OK.
From the first day of school through today, we’ve had 32 positive staff cases, all fully recovered and working, and 133 positive [student] cases [out of a total of 1,600 students]. All 133 fully recovered and able to be back in school. And the number of students that at some point had to quarantine was significantly higher than 133.
Yesterday was the first time I have felt like my mask is a political statement.
Iowa passed a law in June that meant students had to be in face-to-face learning at least 50 percent of the time. So we had students in the building 50 percent of the time and then working remotely 50 percent of the time for the first five weeks of [this] school year. [We used] the mitigation strategies, social distancing in their classrooms, wearing masks.
Right around October 1, we brought students back 100 percent. It got to about mid-November, and that’s when things really started to get challenging, just the number of people needing to quarantine. As we got to about Thanksgiving, we were struggling really to have enough adults to provide adequate supervision. We limped into Thanksgiving break. We planned a full week of remote learning the week after Thanksgiving. It was a really hard time here in Iowa, with high positivity rates. We came back after winter break 100 percent face to face, and we have been ever since.
The first place I arrived [Thursday] was one of our elementary buildings because we had already had a scheduled staff meeting. I walked in with my mask on, and over about a 10-minute period, the staff made their way in, and every single staff member had their mask on. We discussed the things that we needed to discuss, and then I expressed my disappointment with our legislature and with the governor signing the bill, my deep appreciation for what our teachers have done this year, and the fact that they were wearing their masks. And as I looked around the room, sharing those thoughts, there were people tearing up, and I teared up a little bit myself. It’s been an incredibly stressful year for people.
It was very important for teachers to have that conversation in their rooms, that things have changed today, and you have a choice about wearing your mask or not. I know a lot of our teachers talked about why they were going to wear their masks, that it was about caring for other people, and safety in their classrooms. In my message to staff that morning, and in my message to parents, I said that whether a child decides to wear a mask or not, they’re not going to be teased, they’re not going to be pressured. That’s not how we treat people in our schools.
I got a phone call from a parent, frustrated that a teacher had said to students in a classroom, if you don’t wear your mask, you’re going to get COVID, and that scared the students. And I said [to the parent], I completely understand that, and we’ll address that. We continue to strongly encourage mask wearing because it’s the CDC recommendation, and it’s the option that’s rooted in science rather than politics. But we shouldn’t use scare tactics to get kids to do that.
We had a 7th and 8th grade concert last night, and I went to make sure that that things went well. Almost 70 percent of our parents came in wearing their mask. And of the 7th and 8th graders on the stage performing, 60 to 70 percent wore their mask. I went home just really, really proud and thankful for the community that we serve, that parents made the choice to walk into our facility and put their mask on.
When I got home last night, I asked my 5th grade son [who is at greater risk from COVID-19 because he has Type 1 diabetes], how’d it go today? He said it was fine. And I said, did you wear your mask? And he said, yep, I did. And I said, did anybody say anything to you? And he said, one person said, why are you wearing your mask? And all I said was, I don’t want to get a disease. I said, you handled that well, I’m proud of you.
I do worry. I have a staff member who’s pregnant, who was very despondent and very concerned about exposure to students throughout the day. I have a student who lives in a mobile home with grandparents who have respiratory issues. Those grandparents, I feel like they trust us enough to send their grandchild to [school], and that when that child comes home, it’s going to be safe to give him a hug, or sit next to each other on the couch and read a book together. I have a teacher, he and his partner moved an elderly parent to Decorah during this school year.
I’ve received emails and calls from families that aren’t sending their kids back to enjoy the last few days of school with their friends because of this. And they’ve [said] thank you for what you’ve done this year, what your teachers have done, but we’re not comfortable sending our kids back to school.