Masks to become optional in Dubuque public schools

Dubuque Community Schools will no longer require students and staff to wear masks starting Friday, May 21.

The move puts Dubuque among the local schools and municipalities to drop masking requirements in recent days, as state health officials have urged districts to make masks optional and state legislators are moving to prohibit schools from requiring them.

“This is an opportunity for us to get out in front of it and be a little more purposeful with families,” Superintendent Stan Rheingans said.

He announced the change this afternoon in a letter to families. In it, he explained that the Legislature was expected to soon pass legislation that would prohibit districts from requiring face coverings.

Iowa Department of Public Health officials also issued guidance last week urging school districts to make masks optional, Dubuque County officials have dropped their mask mandate, and City of Dubuque leaders voted tonight to repeal theirs.

Rheingans said the Legislatures moves were “the final piece of the puzzle” in the school district’s decision.

“Let’s do change on our terms and let’s do it in a way that we can set a process in place, as opposed to wait to see,” Rheingans said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended schools continue COVID-19 prevention strategies for the current school year, including wearing masks.

Rheingans acknowledged the contradictory federal and state advice has been frustrating.

“It makes for some interesting decision-making on the end of the superintendent or the school board,” he said

Rheingans said the district’s situation has changed since officials first required masks. At that time, a key goal was to protect adults from contracting COVID-19. Now, vaccines are widely available to adults, local positivity rates have dropped, and some school buildings haven’t had any cases in more than a month.

“That minimizes the exposure, too, because of the number of cases in Dubuque County and certainly the number in our schools … have dropped immensely,” Rheingans said.

He said the district will continue implementing protocols such as student distancing and sanitization.

Students riding school buses still will be required to wear masks while on them in accordance with a federal order requiring masks on public transportation.

Rheingans also noted in his letter that there is updated guidance from IDPH recommending that children exposed to COVID-19 no longer be required to stay home. District staff will continue contact tracing when students are exposed to COVID-19 and will notify families, who can choose whether to quarantine their student.

School Board President Tami Ryan said she supports the process that Rheingans has followed in making decisions during the pandemic and that she would have understood both a decision to keep or to drop the mask requirement. She noted that families still have the option to have their children wear masks.

“We’re ready to go forward and put this chapter of the pandemic behind us,” Ryan said.