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'I never thought my job could kill me': Iowa educators upset over lack state guidance

The Iowa Department of Education released a brief document last week that did not mandate masks or social distancing for students and teachers returning in the fall.

FAIRFIELD, Iowa — Jen Mangler has been an educator for two decades, and loves teaching seventh grade social studies in Fairfield. But ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she's been anxious and nervous about her job.

"I never thought that my job could kill me," Mangler said. "Or that it could kill my family members, but it absolutely could at this point. There are things that we could do to make it safer for everybody: for my kids, my colleagues, for me, for my family. And it really irritates me that the state won't put those in place."

Last week, the Iowa Department of Education released guidelines for schools crafting their "Return to Learn" plans. The two-page document lacked details in many areas, but did make one thing clear that caught Mangler's eye: face coverings were not recommended. 

"My first reaction was anger. It didn't really seem like the guidelines were addressing the problem that we're facing," Mangler said. "It seemed pretty much business as usual...and to not recommend face masks, I just don't understand that. We are seeing a surge now across the country, and it's because people aren't wearing masks and aren't social distancing." 

Mangler said her seventh-graders all sit in a circle, facing each other, because that's the way she has designed the classroom. That was before the pandemic hit Iowa. Now, she said she will have to rethink that, and nearly everything she does in the classroom.

Over the past several months, Mangler said the Fairfield Community School District has been proactive about designing what the school year will look like for students and teachers in the fall. She said leaders have been working to obtain personal protective equipment. While she recognizes that under the state's guidelines, districts can make stricter policies that what is outlined by the state, they will be liable for issues.

"It just feels like the state doesn't have our back," Mangler said. "You know you want to be there for your students, but I just don't know what it's going to be like. It makes it a lot easier for a classroom teacher to enforce a rule if there is a rule. But if there isn't one, if the state says no, you really don't have to, that sends a really strong message that masks aren't important..."

In an interview with Local 5, Rep. Molly Donahue, D-Cedar Rapids, expressed similar concerns over the guidance.

"They really have left out all of the important things that are necessary to keep our students and our staff safe," Donahue said. "When you look at that, I guess I go back as an educator. I want my kids to be safe. I want my coworkers to be safe. But more importantly, we have to get our schools open and we have to keep them open. Our economy is dependent upon it."

WATCH: Rep. Molly Donahue reacts to state education requirements

RELATED: Des Moines Public Schools on fall return: 'We intend to require face masks'

Donahue is both a state lawmaker and teacher, and said she thinks there has been "a little bit of a turnaround" since the initial announcement last week.

"They've backed them down from not recommending masks to not requiring masks," Donahue said. "That seems pretty minuscule, but that's a start."

On Friday, the Department of Education issued a follow-up statement about its guidelines, acknowledging that the reopening guidance needs further clarification. State education leaders promised to provide more information in the near future.

"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 Dept. of Ed said.

RELATED: Districts get to decide if face masks will be required in Iowa schools

RELATED: Iowa parents give failing grade to lack of statewide face mask requirement for schools

WATCH: Complete "Return to Learn" coverage from Local 5 on YouTube

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