Education

Iowa City schools to start first two weeks online

Athletics, extracurricular activities suspended under governor's orders for a virtual start

Cindy McCarthy, who teaches 7th and 8th grade business and technology, works at her computer while listening to a Zoom s
Cindy McCarthy, who teaches 7th and 8th grade business and technology, works at her computer while listening to a Zoom staff meeting at Central City’s elementary school on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. For the Central City community, the school year will begin with a synchronous learning environment, in which students are assigned to a homeroom and “attend” classes via Google Classroom. In this model, students can choose between in-person or at-home learning, both via computer. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Iowa City schools will start classes online for the first two weeks of school after receiving a waiver from the Department of Education Wednesday.

In an emotional school board meeting Saturday morning, the Iowa City school board unanimously voted to start the school year on Sept. 8, virtually.

“Our schools are a hub for the community, which means they’re a vector for transmission (of the coronavirus),” interim Superintendent Matt Degner said. “A rise in cases cannot be contained if the community doesn’t respond. I’m not waiting for students, staff and families to get sick.”

The school board voted in July to start school 100 percent virtually, but had to quickly change course after Gov. Kim Reynolds announced schools must offer 50 percent on-site instruction.

Under Reynolds’ interpretation of Senate File 2310, which gives guidance to reopening schools during the pandemic, if a district is granted the choice to go 100 percent online by the Department of Education, it requires the suspension of all in-person extracurricular activities, including athletics.

The district is pursuing litigation with the Iowa State Education Association over Reynolds’ interpretation of Senate File 2310. A hearing is scheduled Sept. 3 in Johnson County.

Over a dozen community members, including student athletes, voiced their opinion during public comment at the school board meeting Saturday.

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Iowa City West football players gathered outside the district’s Educational Services Center in Iowa City to show support for the continuation of athletics this fall. The school board met virtually via Zoom and was not at the Educational Services Center Saturday morning.

“We all came out to the district building this morning because we care so much about this season,” said Marcus Morgan, an Iowa City West football player. “We’ve done everything you’ve asked” — including wearing masks during practice, not sharing water bottles and social distancing outside of practice — “The spread (of COVID-19) hasn’t risen inside our teams. We just want the chance to play. Taking away our senior season could be devastating.”

Other community members, such like Dan Ramsey, a bus driver for Iowa City schools, pleaded with the school board to move to temporary online learning.

“How many children deaths are acceptable for us to go to school?” Ramsey said. “It’s a no-win situation, but we have to really look at what if a child dies, or a teacher, or a lunch lady or a school bus driver. Is any of that worth it? This isn’t going to last forever. If we can just hang on and do what we can until they come up with a vaccine, I think that is the most prudent, wise and compassionate decision you can make.”

School board member Lisa Williams said after receiving hundreds of emails from the community about whether to move to online classes or stay in the hybrid model, she is “disheartened” by the lack of empathy for teachers and school staff.

“The debate of whether it is currently safe to return to in-person school is over,” Williams said.

Williams said Friday the district reported its first positive COVID-19 case of a high school staff member.

She is, however, impressed with the emails from student athletes and encouraged them to take their advocacy to the next level by calling the governor’s office and the Department of Education to ask them to let districts make local decisions about extracurricular activities.

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School board member Ruthina Malone was visibly emotional as she talked about the affect she knows moving to online school will have on student athletes.

“My heart goes out to the student athletes,” Malone said. “Some of our students talked about what not having sports could potentially lead them to — maybe getting into more trouble. I hate that our schools have to provide that shield for our kids.

“This sucks, it is hard, but I’m not going to pretend to vote differently.”

The school district does not “operate in isolation,” said Malone, who works at the University of Iowa where an coronavirus cases are rising quickly.

“We’re in the midst of an epicenter pandemic. I’m not willing to send kids into our buildings or our staff or our teachers,” Malone said.

While the district plans to apply for another two-week waiver of online instruction to extend beyond Sept. 22, school board President Shawn Eyestone said they are not trying to “cram this down everyone’s throat for an entire school year or even a semester.”

“We are in a position now that is unfathomable how bad it is in our community,” Eyestone said. “If we give it a little time, we can go back to school.”

Families will have the option of signing up for school lunch for the semester. More information about how families can sign up and how meals will be distributed will be available next week.

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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