Fact Checker

Fact Checker: Are classrooms in pandemic as safe as Gov. Reynolds claims?

Gov. Kim Reynolds meets Aug. 14, 2020, with Cedar Rapids school officials including Principal Jason Kline of Kennedy Hig
Gov. Kim Reynolds meets Aug. 14, 2020, with Cedar Rapids school officials including Principal Jason Kline of Kennedy High School after the Aug. 10 derecho badly damaged the school. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

The debate between in-person instruction and virtual instruction in Iowa schools during the pandemic has been contentious as Gov. Kim Reynolds pushes for legislation requiring schools to offer a 100-percent in-person learning option for families.

Reynolds reiterated her stance in a Jan. 7 virtual news conference with the Iowa Capitol Press Association.

“We have so many examples across the state of school districts that have been in (session) the entire time, and they have done it in a safe and responsible manner,” Reynolds said.

Graded a B

“And they have excellent data where they can demonstrate that the spread is not happening in the classroom. ... By and large, the majority is happening outside the classroom.”

Analysis

First we’ll check whether Iowa has “so many examples” of districts with 100-percent in person instruction that have been doing it in a “safe and responsible manner.”

A spokeswoman from the Iowa Department of Education said its latest survey of all school districts, conducted Dec. 9, showed 82 percent were operating in-person for five days a week.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes mask-wearing, social distancing, hand hygiene and consistent cleaning as ways to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

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Regarding the “safe and responsible manner,” Reynolds’ spokesman directed The Gazette to weekly voluntary COVID-19 surveys conducted by the state Education Department.

The survey with the most districts participating looked at between the start of the school year and Nov. 29. Of the 130 districts reporting data, 121 indicated students wore masks, 123 socially distanced and 77 had dividers between students.

More than two-thirds of districts did not participate in the survey, though. Participation in the voluntary survey decreased in subsequent weeks, with 7 percent participating Jan. 4 through Jan. 10.

Reynolds’ statement about most of the spread happening outside the classroom is in line with perspectives from local, federal and international health experts.

Public health officials from Linn and Johnson counties told The Gazette in December that COVID-19 has not spread significantly through classroom contact.

The Governor’s Office referred to a CDC study released Jan. 13 indicating students in areas with in-person instruction are similar to areas offering online education exclusively.

A study published June 16 in the scientific journal Nature Medicine also showed a lower likelihood of children transmitting COVID-19 than adults.

A World Health Organization report from October noted “few outbreaks reported in schools since early 2020” although the organization still was “learning more as schools reopen.”

But that is not necessarily a consensus in the scientific community.

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Some European experts are reconsidering the notion that the spread of COVID-19 among children happens mostly outside classrooms, a Jan. 16 Wall Street Journal article reported.

Antoine Flahault, director of the University of Geneva’s Institute of Global Health, told the Journal there is “much more evidence” from the second wave of COVID-19 infections that “schoolchildren are almost equally, if not more infected” as others.

A Nov. 5 article from the Association of American Medical Colleges, which compiled research from medical colleges across the country, said COVID-19 has spread in schools although they haven’t been superspreader sites.

The AAMC article also notes schools doing well at preventing COVID-19 from spreading in the classroom have been operating below capacity.

Conclusion

Iowa Department of Education data shows hundreds of districts have been in-person and operating with many of the CDC-recommended procedures. A lack of data makes it unclear if most districts have been following those precautions, but it’s enough to fit Reynolds’ “so many” description.

Some health experts reaffirm Reynolds’ assertion that most of the COVID-19 spread among students comes from outside the classroom, but it is not a consensus in the scientific community.

Grade: B. There’s some data behind each part of Reynolds’ claim, but uncertainty remains in the scientific community.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.

Claims must be independently verifiable.

We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by John Steppe of The Gazette.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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