Cordy Alpers, 15, plays with her family’s kitten, Artie, at their home in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. Cordy wears a mask at school, where she finds there is less space for social distancing than last year. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Cordy Alpers, 15, helps her dad, Dan Alpers put up Halloween decorations at their home in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. Cordy wears a mask at school, where she finds there is less space for social distancing than last year. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Cordy Alpers, 15, helps her dad, Dan Alpers put up Halloween decorations at their home in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. Cordy wears a mask at school, where she finds there is less space for social distancing than last year. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Kennedy High School sophomore Cordy Alpers said she is one of a handful of students in her classes who wears a mask. Two weeks into the school year, she’s noticing a lot of empty desks of students who either are quarantining from exposure to COVID-19 or who tested positive.

Iowa school districts are prohibited from requiring masks to be worn in buildings because of a law signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds in May.

Schools also are not required to conduct contact tracing, and many parents are frustrated they don’t know if their child is considered a close contact with someone who tested positive.

A close contact is someone who is within 6 feet of a COVID-19 positive person for 15 minutes or longer.

Cordy, 15, received an email alerting her of positive COVID-19 cases in her school the first week of school.

“Gov. Reynolds — this decision she’s made banning mask mandates is just asking for trouble … . She’s really messing this up for everyone and is part of the reason why we’re still in this,” Cordy said.

Last week, Cedar Rapids schools shifted their contact tracing protocol after seeing a rise in cases of COVID-19 in the community and in schools. The district will begin conducting contact tracing, and students or staff members with COVID-19 symptoms or a positive test now are required to isolate for 10 days.

As of Sept. 3, Cedar Rapids schools were reporting 66 students and 14 staff who tested positive for COVID-19 across 24 of the district’s 32 schools.

Cordy made her own decision to get vaccinated for COVID-19 last spring, and said it’s “outrageous” there are people eligible to get vaccinated who still haven’t.

“People who don’t get vaccinated are part of the problem, too. We wouldn’t have the delta variant or have to wear masks if they just got vaccinated,” Cordy said.

Cordy took classes virtually last year until Jan. 19, when Kennedy High School reopened after repairs to damage done during the August 2020 derecho that swept through Cedar Rapids were completed. She continued her freshman year in hybrid learning — going to school two days a week and learning from home the other days.

Last year, the hallways were sparse — students were able to keep their distance from each other to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, with some students in hybrid learning and others learning online-only.

This year, “there’s not an inch of space between students” in the hallways when they transition between classes, Cordy said.

But Dan Alpers, Cordy’s father, said it wasn’t a difficult decision to send Cordy back to school in-person this year. She needs the social interaction for the sake of her mental health, he said.

There were days last year that Cordy’s mental health was suffering so much she couldn’t shower or even get out of bed, she said. Part of it was the fear of living through a pandemic. The other part was the social isolation and sitting in front of a computer for classes the majority of the day.

“I wanted to go back to school, see my friends and not act like robots,” Cordy said.

To manage some of her anxiety and depression during the pandemic, Cordy has thrown herself into her hobby as a “haunter” at Circle of Ash Haunted Attraction in Central City.

Alpers, a designer for Circle of Ash, and Cordy work year-around on preparing the haunt for the October Halloween season. Cordy is working on making her costume for next month, which she called the “creature in the woods.”

“Scaring people can be a form of therapy,” Cordy said.

COVID-19 cases on the rise

As students begin their third week back at school, more cases of COVID-19 are being reported daily than were recorded in an entire week in July.

The seven-day positivity rate for COVID-19 is almost 15 percent in Linn County, said Dr. Pramod Dwivedi, Linn County Public Health director, in a news conference last week. The Delta variant of COVID-19, which is highly transmissible, is the only strain being detected in Linn County.

In August, 13 people died of COVID-19 — the highest number of deaths seen in months in Linn County. Last week, 45 Linn County residents were hospitalized for COVID-19.

This past Monday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into Iowa and four other states to explore if banning mask mandates discriminates against students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 by preventing them from safely accessing in-person education.

‘No one is escaping this’

Katie Ripke’s three-year-old daughter tested positive for COVID-19 on Aug. 29. A Linn County contact tracer told her two sons — eight and six years old — also would test positive.

“No one is escaping this,” Ripke said.

Her sons attend Lisbon Elementary School. Her daughter is in an in-home day care, and when she started developing a cough, Ripke took her out of day care and had her tested to keep the other children as safe as possible.

Her family is choosing to isolate for 10 days while her daughter is sick, and will quarantine for another week after she has recovered and monitor the rest of the family for symptoms.

Iowa law does not require students to quarantine if they have not tested positive for COVID-19 and are not showing symptoms.

Ripke said she’s “sick to her stomach” sending her kids back to school this year when there is no mask mandate.

“I was anxious about it last year, but they all wore masks. This year, my kids are two of a handful wearing a mask in the whole school,” she said. “It’s very frustrating for me that the decision about masks cannot be made at a local level.”

Ripke also is struggling to teach her children at home while they are in isolation. She and her husband are balancing two full-time jobs with three kids at home.

Last year there were more options for children learning from home — whether by choice or because they were in quarantine from exposure to COVID-19. Many districts offered temporary remote learning, and students could log on to a virtual lesson posted online by their teacher or even watch instruction life-streamed from the classroom.

Now, no school is required to offer or maintain continuous remote learning or deliver instruction over the internet under a new state law.

Starting school in quarantine

Marlee Hurt, 15, and her brother Sullivan Hurt, eight, were in quarantine for the first week of school after their father, Derek — who is vaccinated — tested positive for COVID-19. They are students in the Linn-Mar Community School District.

Their mother, Laura, said it was difficult to get homework sent home for her children and is disappointed there’s no temporary virtual learning option for them.

“Everyone I talked to was amazing and supportive and apologetic,” Laura said. “They all shared the same concerns, but their hands feel tied.”

Marlee was vaccinated last spring when the Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of the COVID-19 vaccine for children 12 and older. As a Type 1 diabetic, she is considered at high risk for COVID-19, and her family quarantined much of last year.

She and Sullivan attended school virtually during the 2020-21 school year.

Laura has “mixed feelings” about sending them back in-person for the 2021-22 school year. Marlee and Sullivan wear a mask in school to protect themselves and other students.

“We do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Laura said. “The fact that other people are so selfish and can’t take that small step to protect other people is ridiculous.”

John Wiedenheft’s four-year-old daughter Nora was in quarantine last week after being exposed to COVID-19 at St. Matthew’s preschool.

Nora’s pediatrician recommended that she quarantine until Sept. 2, even though it is not required. She tested negative for COVID-19 on Sept. 1.

Nora attended day care and preschool at St. Matthew’s since June 2020. This is the first time the family has been notified of a positive COVID-19 case in her class.

Wiedenheft attributes her exposure to fewer people wearing masks.

“Last year when all the kids had masks, there was no one sick in her classroom,” Wiedenheft said.

“It’s just tough. It’s tougher for parents who do want their kids to wear masks. It takes away some of that social reinforcement the kids were getting before” to wear a mask.

“I think kids are really good at wearing masks when they see everyone else doing it and the teachers are reinforcing it. Nora is one of four in a class of 20 that’s wearing a mask, then if she takes it off there’s no reinforcement to put it back on.”

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