The leader of the Iowa State Education Association today criticized the state’s education and health officials for not offering more definitive guidance for school districts in developing their Return to Learn plans for safely restarting in-person classes in the fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“What is really needed now is definitive leadership and guidance,” said Mike Beranek, president of the ISEA, during a videoconference panel with reporters. Today was the Iowa Department of Education deadline for school districts to submit their “Return to Learn” plans to the department. 

Beranek, a third grade teacher in the West Des Moines School District, expressed his frustration with guidelines issued last week by the Iowa Department of Education and Iowa Department of Public Health, which recommended that districts not require that face masks be worn. 

In a statement issued Friday, the department wrote: “We recognize that face masks can be an important tool to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The Department of Education and the Iowa Department of Public Health do not recommend that districts and nonpublic schools require masks for all students and staff because of the considerable implications for such a policy. However, schools may decide to require masks based on their individual situations and data.” 

The Department of Education also said in the Friday statement that the reopening guidance it released last week “needs further clarification,” and that it will “release additional information in the near future as well as health and safety measures for teachers to use to assist students and families.”

Also on the videoconference with Beranek were an infectious disease physician and a pediatrician, who both cited the importance of protective measures that include face masks or face shields. 

“Being in a confined indoor space is the highest risk, because there is no way to clear the air,” said Dr. Megan Srivinas, a Fort Dodge infectious disease physician. “So classrooms are going to be high risk unless we take precautions.” She also noted that although children are less likely to get the virus, they are not immune, and some children with health conditions such as asthma are more susceptible. 

Beranek called the state agencies’ guidance “irresponsible,” and said that he hopes that the Iowa Department of Education will revise its guidance. 

“Our school districts are looking for clear guidance based in science and health — that should not be hard,” Beranek said. “Face coverings, physical distancing and frequent hand-washing helps to save lives.”