Iowa schools, event organizers face tough decisions as COVID-19 spikes again

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Mask mandates at Iowa schools are banned under a new state law. (Stock photo/Getty Images)
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By Perry Beeman, Iowa Capital Dispatch

Signs that the delta variant of COVID-19 will disrupt classes and events in coming months continued to mount Tuesday. 

The Western Iowa Labor Federation canceled all of its Labor Day picnics in Council Bluffs, Fort Dodge and Sioux City due to the rising number of cases in the state. 

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“Confirmed case rates in Woodbury and Pottawattamie counties are among the highest in the state, while vaccination rates in both counties are still less than 50% of the population,” the federation reported in a news release.

Federation President Jeff Shudak said the organization didn’t want to add to the threat to children. Young students who aren’t eligible for vaccines and will attend classes this fall under a state ban on local mask mandates. The ban was approved by the Republican legislative majority and signed by GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds. Unions have tended to support Democratic candidates.

“Unfortunately, due to low vaccination rates, a lack of state or local mitigation, and the spread of increasingly contagious variants, COVID  rates are on the rise again,” Shudak said in a statement. “The WILF board and its delegates do not want to contribute to  the spread of this virus in our communities, especially among children who are unable to  be vaccinated. They are already encountering enough risk at school.” 

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Classes delayed

The Avoca area school district, AHSTW, announced it will delay the beginning of classes until Aug. 30 due to staff illnesses and exposures to the coronavirus. Classes had been scheduled to start Tuesday. 

The district includes students from Avoca, Hancock, Shelby, Tennant and Walnut.

The Des Moines Register reported that 15 superintendents who participated in School Administrators of Iowa conference-call Tuesday said they were unaware of other districts delaying classes. The day before, Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, the teachers’ union, told the Register he expects more districts to face decisions similar to Avoca’s as the delta variant continues to spread.

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Des Moines schools start classes at 60 buildings Wednesday with 32,000 students, spokesman Phil Roeder said. A total of  1,500 students will be taking online classes through an elementary program and through the district’s Virtual Campus for grades six through 12. 

In an interview, Roeder said the district does not plan to ignore the state ban on mask mandates.

“Iowa, of course, is one of those states that opted to ignore science and not allow schools to require masks,” Roeder said.

“With that said, we have been encouraging students and staff alike to mask up every time we talk about this issue. At this time there’s no intention to ignore the state’s law, no matter how pro-COVID it is, and impose our own unenforceable mask mandate,” he added.

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“Unfortunately, our state has tied the hands of school districts from taking even the most basic steps in protecting people from the pandemic, including elementary school students who are not yet old enough to receive the vaccine,” Roeder said.  “We do plan to launch a dashboard in the next couple of days to track positive cases among students and staff.”

Reynolds has said repeatedly that parents should decide whether their children wear a mask in class.

The Des Moines district closed its administrative office building for the first week of classes when more than 10% of the staff tested positive for COVID-19.  The district has increased air exchanges in buildings and has 5,000 hand-sanitizing stations, Roeder added. 

Spoon concert canceled; Bublé show requires vaccines or tests

The band Spoon canceled a Des Moines show over concerns that many concert-goers would be unvaccinated due to a new state lawthat prohibits businesses from requiring proof of vaccines, the Associated Press reported. House File 889 was passed after Republicans objected to the concept of “vaccine passports.”

However, Wells Fargo Arena is requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours to attend the Michael Bublé concert on Sept. 17, the arena website notes.  Those under age 12, who can’t get a vaccine yet, will have to show test results. The rules are subject to change, the statement added.

Arena manager Chris Connolly said he and his staff are responding to requests from the artists and their promoters.

“We literally are dealing with each artist on a case-by-case basis,” Connolly said.

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He contended the fact that Bublé concert-goers can get a test if they don’t want to show proof of vaccination gets around the state law. A similar arrangement will be used for the James Taylor/Jackson Browne concert Dec. 8, Connolly said.

Alan Jackson and his team didn’t ask for any special COVID-19 procedures for his Sept. 11 show at Wells Fargo, so there won’t be any, Connolly said.

Wells Fargo Arena suggests concert-goers wear masks, but doesn’t require them. Connolly said all COVID-19 rules could change depending on the number of cases and other factors.

Iowa has seen a steep increase in cases lately. The data is spotty and at times questionable due to the state’s decision to only update statistics once a week. 

For example, on Tuesday, the New York Times was reporting zero new cases, based on state reporting, for three consecutive days after nearly 2,200 cases on a single day last week. In recent weeks, that has tended to mean a delay in obtaining state data, rather than an actual reading of zero.

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