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WHO 13 NEWS – Five Des Moines metro school districts now have mask mandates in place, and at all five the only exemptions are for medical or religious reasons.

School districts have already issued nearly 600 exemptions, potentially reducing the COVID protections school districts hoped to provide.

Dealing with exemptions is nothing new for district leaders, however, reimplementing mask mandates is a task easier said than done.

“Accommodating the various different levels of exemptions whether that’s through a learning disability, a medical thing, or religious exemption is a challenge when you have a district of 7500 students,” Laura Sprague, director of communications at Johnston Community School District, said.

In Johnston, a doctor’s signature is required for the medical exemption. Parents requesting a religious exemption must confirm the mask requirement “conflicts with a genuine and sincere religious belief held by the person, which is in fact religious and not based merely on philosophical, scientific, moral, personal, or medical opposition.”

Sprague admits that can get tricky.

“Everyone views religion in perhaps a different way,” Sprague said, “and it’s, it’s very hard to try and quantify or qualify that into an exemption and how that impacts mask mandates.”

As a lawyer and law professor, Denise Hill has researched medical mandates thoroughly and knows the impact exemptions of any kind can have on the greater good.

“Exceptions are not intended to apply very broadly,” Hill said. “They’re intended to apply in a narrow set of circumstances. and so if we all are flooding the system, then that’s going to be a problem for those who have a genuine need.”

The latest numbers from local districts show that Johnston Schools have so far approved 268 exemptions. Urbandale has approved 194. Des Moines Public Schools has approved 104. Ankeny so far has had 15 employees file for exemptions, but the district is still working on tallying up the student number.

Hill explains each district looks at these exemptions on a case-by-case basis, saying school leaders have to determine if the student qualifies to be exempt.

“As soon as a student turns in that form, they no longer have to wear a mask,” Sprague said. 

As well as if they can accommodate the exemption.

“That same requirement will apply to a kid who needs others to wear masks, as well as a kid who needs to not wear a mask,” Hill said.

Hill said these districts may not be able to accommodate people who don’t want to wear a mask because it wouldn’t be safe for others at school. If you remember, the temporary ban of the law from the federal judge was put in place to protect children with health conditions.