Part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID-19 created in partnership with the Institute for Nonprofit News and several member newsrooms.
This piece is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID-19 created in partnership with the Institute for Nonprofit News and several member newsrooms. The project is made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

A meatpacking plant is one of the most dangerous places to work, the risk of injury high and illness can spread quickly on the crowded killing floors. 

Iowa counties with the highest rates of COVID-19 infection are home to large meat packing plants. Already at risk for outbreaks at work, families here face sending their children back to classrooms where rates of transmission among students and teachers aren’t fully understood.

There are no plans from health officials to address an outbreak at a school with ties to a meatpacking plant; the current direction is that counties work with the local department of health to determine appropriate steps, according to a review by IowaWatch. Iowa saw several outbreaks at plants in the spring.

The Iowa Department of Public Health did not respond to multiple requests for information.

Recent studies released by the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Centers for disease control show transmission and infection rates among kids is higher than originally anticipated. Serious illness that can result from a COVID19 infection have impacted relatively few children in the United States but studies are ongoing. 

Eleven of Iowa’s 99 counties had 10 or more confirmed cases per thousand residents, each had one thing in common – it is home to a large beef, turkey or pork plant. (data as of June 1, 2020)

The 2020-2021 school year will be unlike any other.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everything. The economy strains under new realities, businesses struggle to stay afloat, hospitals are taxed to nearly breaking; nothing is normal. Even the reliability of school starting – families streaming to big box stores to stock up on supplies and celebrating the first day – is in doubt.

For families of meatpacking employees the risks could be higher. 

Kristy Nabhan-Warren

Kristy Nabhan-Warren, a University of Iowa researcher and author of “Meat America: The Work of Faith in the Heartland,” has spent the last eight years researching meatpacking in Iowa – observing the inner workings of plants around the state. The rates of injury and illness on killing floors are higher than for all of private industry and all manufacturing. 

The plants run on migrant and refugee power. African and Central American workers make up much of the workforce – an already at-risk population. Iowa’s immigrant population has jumped in the last decade relocating to communities near processing plants for work. Add COVID-19 and the prospect of sending their children back to school – the situation may become untenable for some of these families. 

Dr. Megan Srinivas, infectious diseases specialist with a master’s degree in public health, says meatpacking plants present a unique challenge to fighting any pandemic including COVID-19.

“Plants represent a mixing pot,” she said. “COVID-19 doesn’t recognize county lines, and carpooling across counties is commonplace for these workers.”  

Prestage Foods of Iowa employs a number of Fort Dodge residents and Iowans from other communities. In April, 25 employees tested positive for COVID-19.
(Photo by Danielle Gehr / IowaWatch)

Across the country packing plant workers are more likely to live in multigenerational households. It is the same for Iowa workers (see sidebar). This presents an even more precarious situation for these Iowa families — , children at school where transmission levels are unknown, workers at plants that historically can be illness vectors then come home potentially bringing COVID19 with them to their older, higher risk family members. 

Nabhan-Warren said this was an even more difficult time for these families to speak out when they see potential missteps at a meatpacking plant for fear they could lose their jobs. 

One example is relative newcomer Prestage Foods, which draws workers from several communities; IowaWatch looked at school and health preparations in Eagle Grove, Fort Dodge and Waterloo.

North Carolina-based Prestage built a $300 million-dollar plant to rural Wright County and the small town of Eagle Grove in 2018. They brought in Chicago architects and consulted with Temple Grandin, an expert on livestock handling and barn design. The plant sits on 160 acres of Iowa farmland. With over five miles of conveyor belting, over 900 employees process over 10,000 head of hogs a day from the 100,000-square-foot kill floor to the 20,000 square feet freezer. 

Families and workers declined to speak with IowaWatch about this story. Prestage declined to be interviewed when asked how they are protecting employees during the time of COVID-19 and as children of workers head back to school.  

Deborah Johnson, communications director of Prestage wrote in an email, “I appreciate your interest in involving us in this particular story you’re working on, but we decline the opportunity for an interview at the present time.”

In April, Prestage reported their first cases of COVID-19. According to the company 25 workers tested positive. Employees from across the region were infected. Wright County reported 1, Webster County – home to Fort Dodge – reported 1 but the highest number came from Black Hawk County with a reported 18 infections from the Prestage plant. The other cases were from Humboldt and Hamilton counties. 

The Eagle Grove School District, 869 students, is a little over 20 miles from Fort Dodge with about 3,000 residents. The Prestage plant is on the outskirts of the rural town; about a 10 minute drive from Eagle Grove High School. While about 50 percent of the workforce comes from Fort Dodge, a large percentage come from Eagle Grove. 

On Aug. 10, the Eagle Grove School Board held an informational meeting where each member wore a face shield or mask. 

So far, there are 13 students who are opting to learn online. (School started Aug. 17.) The high school is using previously unused spaces to expand lunchrooms, face masks will be required and teachers are ready to head back to school, agile, able to move from one learning option to another if there is an outbreak. Teachers are hyper-vigilant about cleaning between classes, students, they said are just as vigilant about cleaning their personal spaces as the custodians and teachers.

Kids in the elementary school will spend time early on getting used to their PPE, how to wear facemasks properly and educating them on why they need to wear them and how to properly wear them. Classes will be small. But it will be as normal as possible. Recess and lunch and P.E. the kids will get to take off their masks and face shields and run around just like kids. 

Fort Dodge Middle School was nearly empty of students on the afternoon of Aug. 25, 2020, after Dodgers had their first day. (Photo by Danielle Gehr / IowaWatch)

Fort Dodge has a population of around 24,000 and is the seat of Webster County. The Fort Dodge school district, 3,838 students, is already facing scheduling and planning challenges and classes haven’t even begun. Webster County had one of the highest infection rates in the state since the coronavirus was first reported in Iowa – a glitch reported Aug. 20 in Iowa’s COVID-19 tracking system forced counties to reevaluate positivity rates, the metric schools use to determine when and how to head back to class. As a result, the county went from a 24 percent infection rate to only 2.3 percent –  overnight. At the time of publication there is also concern over the miscoding of positive tests in addition to the computer issues that were reported in the last week. And issues remain. There is currently a discrepancy of 223 positive cases reported at the county level that aren’t listed on the IDPH tracker. 

Because the county exceeded the 15 percent rate of infection mark set by the state, which is already far higher than the CDC’s recommendation,  the board pushed the school year back until after Labor Day – then 48 hours later when the miscalculation was reported and the infection rate seemingly plummeted – the school went back to their original start date of Aug. 25.

Once students are back in the classroom, it is still unclear if masks will be required or not, how exactly an outbreak will be handled and when and if the school district reports a case to the public are still up in the air. 

Jennifer Lane, director of communications for the district, tried to clear up the confusion. The district is encouraging rather than mandating mask use and told IowaWatch via email that the Fort Dodge School District is following all CDC guidelines. But CDC guidance which has been modified over the last month and released new information on Aug. 21. In the updated guidance the CDC provided a stratification of risk to help inform school decisions.

On Aug. 25, two Fort Dodge students spent some time on school grounds together. One went back to school Aug. 25 while the other is being homeschooled because of COVID-19. He said he misses the social life at school. The first student said he doesn’t like wearing a mask all day at school. (Photo by Danielle Gehr / IowaWatch)

Online learning is the best way for schools to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among students and keep teachers and staff healthy. However, as schools move into hybrid learning models or full time face-to-face teaching the risk goes up significantly.  

According to the CDC the minimal strategies being implemented by Fort Dodge schools are considered the higher to highest risk strata. 

Children will not be allowed at school if they test positive for COVID-19 and Superintendent Jesse Ulrich said children were expected to complete the isolation and quarantine period before returning. Schools would do the best they could to inform families of a student positive to the degree possible and with guidance from the local Webster County Department of Health.

The same holds for teachers — they must comply with IDPH and local public health rules on isolation and quarantine before returning to work. However since teachers are deemed essential workers if they are exposed to COVID-19 they are expected to work as long as they remain asymptomatic. 

During an informational meeting Superintendent Jesse Ulrich said, “if you [teachers] feel uncomfortable with that, I suggest you consider becoming a substitute teacher or recruit a substitute teacher.” 

Ulrich did not respond to a request for an interview. 

Niki Conrad, Webster County supervisor

Webster County Supervisor Niki Conrad fields calls from concerned parents and community members almost daily about COVID19, infection rates and where the state gets its numbers from.  

“I’ve been tracking daily COVID-19 numbers for Webster County on the state website. When I noticed that we dropped from 893 to 684 confirmed cases between Aug. 19 and Aug. 20, that raised a flag, especially since Webster County Public Health confirmed 912 cumulative cases on the 19th.” Conrad told IowaWatch, “I’ve reached out to the IDPH, but so far, haven’t received a response as to why.”

Over 100 miles away from Prestage, a straight shot east on U.S. Highway 20, is Black Hawk County, home to the Waterloo Cedar Falls metro area and other Prestage workers.

This isn’t unique. Nabhan-Warren said, “people travel long distances in Iowa to work at the plants,” and many share the commute in vans – very close quarters, Nabhan-Warren said.

The Black Hawk County board of health held a special meeting on Aug. 21 where they voted unanimously to recommend a mask mandate throughout the county, despite Reynolds’ assertion that there isn’t local control when it comes to mandating masks.

Waterloo Public Schools has one of the most diverse student bodies in Iowa. The district has already decided it will mandate masks in its hybrid learning plan; plans are available for download in English, Spanish and Bosnian. During the 1990s war and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, Bosnian refuges were resettled in Iowa, many in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area. 

Unlike Fort Dodge, Waterloo — a city of nearly 68,000 with 11,000 students in the district — will have students alternate days to allow for better social distancing, scheduled handwashing, enhanced screening of students and staff  changes to the ventilation system to increase the flow of outside air since much is unknown about the role of HVAC systems in potential for spreading COVID-19.

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In addition to the area supplying Prestage with some workers, another meatpacker is in the area. In April over almost two dozen employees from the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Tyson Fresh Foods plant tested positive for COVID-19. In all over 1,000 workers tested positive for the virus and five people died. Several families have brought a subsequent lawsuit, filed in Black Hawk County Court alleging Tyson failed to implement appropriate health care measures in light of the outbreak.

When one county or school district doesn’t employ adequate COVID-19 mitigation strategies workers from a county with robust public health plans are at risk contracting the disease from their workplace to their home and families an hours drive or more away. Situations like this are playing out across the country. And schools have opened only to be closed the first week of classes.

In Iowa, there have been a few school closures so far.  One example: The Twin Cedars School district opened for two days then abruptly closed on Aug. 25 after several positive cases were reported. The district applied for a waiver to move to online learning due to the outbreak. The waiver was granted by the Iowa Department of Education. Online learning for Twin Cedars will start on Aug. 27, the waiver only approved going online through Sept. 8 when the district plans to go back to face-to-face learning.

COVID IN IOWA: Iowan describes the toll COVID-19 took on his family: an IowaWatch interview

In Caroll, Sonia Walsh is both a parent and member of staff at Carroll Public High Schools as head drama instructor and speech coach. After seeing one daughter off to college she and her youngest, a highschooler, both headed back to school this week. Carroll is not far from Smithfield-Farmland Foods. 

“I think the school district is doing a lot, but I also think we are going to reach some bad numbers fairly quickly,” she said.

The Carroll school board opted to recommend masks but not require them;  however, Kuemper Catholic School in Carroll mandates masks and has implemented significant mitigation strategies. 

Walsh has opted in on masks. “My child wears a mask and when I’m in the building I’ll wear a mask, too,” she said.

Andy Kopsa is a freelance writer and native Iowan who occasionally reports and writes for IowaWatch. This piece is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID. It includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.  

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