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The Scarlet & Black

Feven Getachew
Feven Getachew
May 6, 2024
Michael Lozada
Michael Lozada
May 6, 2024
Nathan Hoffman
Nathan Hoffman
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Harvey Wilhelm `24.
Harvey Wilhelm
May 6, 2024

College staff and faculty worry about the safety of their families

Despite precautions taken by the College to keep their faculty and staff safe, members of the College community feel unsafe sending their own children to school. Shabana Gupta.

On Sept. 16, 2021, the Grinnell-Newburg Board of Education voted unanimously at a contentious special meeting to require masks in Grinnell-Newburg School District buildings for all students, staff and visitors.

The meeting was called after a federal judge in Des Moines placed a temporary restraining order on Iowa’s ban on mask mandates in schools, ruling that the ban violated requirements of the American Disabilities Act and was dangerous to students with health conditions.

Professor Timothy Dobe, religious studies, said the meeting, which he and several other Grinnell faculty and staff families attended was, in a word, “tense.”

To Dobe, the meeting was a microcosm of a broader divide between the College’s approach to COVID-19 prevention and that of some other local families.

“I think the contrast between the really good outcomes we’ve seen at the College, with the policies that the College has been following — students, faculty, administration — it’s just a pretty strong contrast to what we’re seeing in the public school. It’s the same community, but a very different approach and outcome, so it’s a local example of how the policy choices really matter for health in the community.”

Dobe said that a local health professional, who spoke at the board meeting about how masks had helped prevent her contraction of COVID-19, even when she treated patients who had tested positive for the virus, was met with hostility and skepticism.

“From the beginning it was, ‘How do we know that’s true? What are your sources?’ People shouting out. Just not a polite manner, and very skeptical of doctors, which is just kind of shocking,” he said.

As the contagious COVID-19 delta variant poses a growing threat, the CDC’s guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools currently recommends universal masking indoors regardless of vaccination status, in accordance with the scientific consensus that universal masking can help prevent transmission.

Professor Ross Haenfler, sociology, said he was strongly in favor of mask requirements.

“It [a mask mandate] just seems like the minimum we can do to keep one another safe. This is how we express our care for ourselves, our families and our communities — by trying to keep one another safe,” Haenfler said.

Dobe, whose two school-age children tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this year, said he also thought the mask mandate was a positive step, but questioned whether implementation would be effective at the school level, particularly with religious exemptions to the requirement in place.

“There’s no real enforcement if students are not wearing their masks properly or at all. … My son in junior high is finding a lot of very relaxed, or careless, kind of attitude towards it, like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do this, but not really.’ So that’s frustrating, and from a health perspective, worrisome.”

Dobe said several other faculty families at the College had also contracted COVID-19 during the school year at Grinnell.

Amidst this spread, both Dobe and Haenfler expressed concern over the lack of other measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission, such as widespread access to rapid testing and Test Iowa sites and no measures for contact tracing in place in public schools.

“I really feel that the governor’s office is making sure that we don’t really have a great sense of how many positive cases there are,” Haenfler said.

According to an information sheet sent to families regarding the Grinnell-Newburg District’s decision to mandate masks, the Iowa Department of Public Health “does not have an order for contact tracing.”

“There seems to be very spotty reporting,” Dobe said. “There’s no tracing and there’s no real finer-grained approach to disseminating information and tracking it in the schools. That seems really sloppy and is just not being done. So, we don’t really have a sense of what the situation actually is.”

Another concern raised at the school board meeting was how the decision to mandate masks would affect prospects for current school board members.

“Somebody from the anti-mask crowd got up and made it clear that the new school board election, in this round, they’re going to try and punish the board for this decision,” Dobe said.

As the Grinnell-Newburg Board of Education election approaches this week, mask mandates have become yet another point of polarization.

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