'A decision that's right for all': Johnston School Board votes to end district's mask mandate

·4 min read
About 30 community members attended a special Johnston School Board meeting Monday evening where board members voted 4-3 to revoke the district's mask mandate for all students.
About 30 community members attended a special Johnston School Board meeting Monday evening where board members voted 4-3 to revoke the district's mask mandate for all students.

In a move that fulfills a campaign promise of Johnston's three new school board members, the district rescinded its mask mandate for all students and staff Monday, effective immediately.

Derek Tidball, Clint Evans and Deb Davis joined Alicia Clevenger, who's been on the board since 2019, in voting to end the mandate, which has been in place since Sept. 23.

Board members Katie Fiala, Jennifer Chamberland and Soneeta Mangra-Dutcher opposed the resolution.

Tidball said he felt the group had "a lot of support" in their decision.

"We were elected in largely because of removing this mask mandate," he said.

Previously: Mask mandate opponents unseat incumbents in Johnston School Board election night results

Johnston is the first Des Moines metro-area school district to rescind its mandate for students following November's elections.

About 30 parents, students and community members attended the meeting, though there was no period for public comment. Discussion among board members lasted less than 20 minutes.

At the time of the vote, there were just eight positive COVID-19 cases reported in the district, according to the district website. In the state, however, both hospitalizations and positive tests have been on the rise in recent weeks.

The move also comes as travel restrictions went into effect Monday for visitors from South Africa and seven other countries out of concern for the new coronavirus variant, omicron. President Joe Biden has called the variant a "cause for concern, not a cause for panic" while repeating his desire to see all Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as part of a strategy for continuing to fight the virus.

More: Judge says feds can't require COVID vaccine for health care workers in Iowa, 9 other states

The Food and Drug Administration approved the COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-11 in late October, though Fiala, the Johnston School Board president, expressed concern Monday over whether families have had enough time to fully vaccinate their children.

The original administrative recommendation was that the mandate be removed only for grades eight through 12 and to extend the requirement for pre-K through seventh grade through Dec. 23. That motion was amended by Evans to include all students.

Fiala opposed the amendment, saying that younger students should be given more time to get vaccinated before the next semester.

"The winter break allows time for students, if they choose, to benefit from the protection of the vaccine when school begins again on Jan. 3," she said.

Evans, however, said that allowing older students to go unmasked while younger students continue to be subjected to the requirement could cause confusion among families with children in different grade levels.

"Splitting it up between grades creates confusion for families that have kids in both eighth grade and younger kids," he said. "If it's a decision that's right for some, I believe it's a decision that's right for all."

Kaycee Schippers, who sat through Monday's meeting, disagreed, saying she will still encourage her eighth-grade son, Jacob, to wear a mask at school.

"I'm angry," Schippers said of the board's decision. "I think it was reckless, I think it was irresponsible and I think they have a duty to look out for all of our students, not just the ones that put money into their campaign for school board."

More in the Johnston Community School District this month:

Mask decision follows debate on removing books from curriculum

The Johnston School District has drawn ire from parents and students in recent weeks after a complaint leveled against two books used in English courses, "The Hate U Give" and "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," inspired heated debate.

At a book reconsideration committee hearing Nov. 18, Iowa Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, argued that teachers and other school officials who give "obscene" material to students should be criminally prosecuted.

In Iowa and across the country, attempts by parents and conservative politicians to ban a variety of books for different reasons have become increasingly common over the past school year. From Kansas and Missouri to Florida, South Carolina and Texas, political debates have erupted over what reading materials should be allowed in classrooms and school libraries.

Other districts, including Waukee, Urbandale and Ankeny, have also seen parents attempt to have books pulled from school libraries. In those districts, the concerns revolve primarily around LGBTQ-themed books, such as "All Boys Aren't Blue," "Lawn Boy," "Gender Queer" and "Hey, Kiddo."

Parents have argued the books are pornographic and obscene and should not be easily accessible to children.

"All Boys Aren't Blue," "Lawn Boy" and "Gender Queer" have been temporarily pulled from Waukee and Northwest High School's libraries while a review process plays out. "Gender Queer" has sparked controversy and been removed from school libraries in states across the country, including Virginia, Texas and Ohio.

Sarah LeBlanc covers the western suburbs for the Register. Reach her at 515-284-8161 or sleblanc@registermedia.com. Follower her on Twitter at @sarahkayleblanc.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: School mask mandate lifted in Johnston; board debates library books