116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Grant Easton is finally back in the classroom after about 18 months of learning from home, between March 2020 and mid-August 2021, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But two weeks into the school year, Grant, 11, was moved to a different sixth-grade teacher. His class went from 17 students to almost 30 — a “traumatic” experience for him, his mother, Brook Easton, said.
During the first two weeks of school, some Iowa City teachers were shifted to different grade levels, or even different schools, to accommodate for the needs of the population at each building.
The district uses the Weighted Resource Allocation Model to control class sizes based on rates of students who face barriers in their education. For example, if 70 percent or more students in a classroom receive free or reduced-price lunch, that class size will be smaller than a classroom that has fewer than the 70 percent.
“Class sizes matter,” said Amy Kortemeyer, Iowa City schools deputy superintendent. “They’re important to our staff, to parents, to students, and we want to provide a safe, welcoming learning environment. We believe (the Weighted Resource Allocation Model) does that.”
Six of Iowa City schools’ 370 classrooms, including two classes at Horn Elementary and one at Wickham Elementary School, were affected by the Weighted Resource Allocation Model after the first day of school this year. The last staff shift for elementary schools was on Aug. 31, Kortemeyer said.
Grant was “super psyched” to be back in school. He had a desk in the corner of the room and felt safe with social distancing and wearing a mask. But when other students joined the class, Easton said Grant was crying and yelling when she picked him up from school that he wanted to do school online.
“He felt like people are breathing down his neck, coughing on him. There’s too many people,” Easton said.
The classroom was not built to accommodate almost 30 students — especially during a pandemic, she said.
"There has to be a solution that works, not only for the school budget, but to give kids and teachers consistency,“ Easton said.
There is no Iowa law that places a cap on class sizes, said Heather Doe, Iowa Department of Education communications director.
There are five levels of the Weighted Resource Allocation Model, with Level 1 being the smallest class size. Last year, all Iowa City school buildings were at a Weighted Resource Allocation Model between Levels 2 and 5.
This year, all Iowa City schools are at a Weighted Resource Allocation Model between Levels 1 and 4, with the help of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding from the U.S. Department of Education and American Rescue Plan.
Level 4 for kindergarten is 24 students, 26 students for first and second grades, and 30 students for third through sixth grades, for example.
“Everyone got bumped down,” Kortemeyer said. “Ideally, we wouldn’t want to have to use even a (Weighted Resource Allocation Model) Level 4, but it’s what we could afford to do.”
Kortemeyer said she understands the “heartache” that can be caused when a student is placed with a different teacher.
“But we do believe this is the most equitable approach to take, so we have buildings staffed accordingly,” Kortemeyer said.
There always is some shift in what classrooms, and even teachers, are placed each year, Kortemeyer said, but most of the work happens before the first day of school.
The number of students enrolled the K-12 Iowa City Community School District Online program also is affecting in-person class sizes, Kortemeyer said.
There are about 900 students enrolled in the virtual academy, rolled out for the first time this year.
The district held two enrollment periods over the summer, and opened a third period in August to give families an online learning option as the delta variant of COVID-19 rapidly spread across the state.
During that time, the number of students enrolled in the online school almost doubled, Kortemeyer said. In the online program, there are 477 students in kindergarten through grade six, 97 students in grades seven through eight, and 178 students in grades nine through 12.
He wanted his voice heard
William Follmer, 11, a sixth-grader at Horn Elementary School, wrote to the school board and Superintendent Matt Degner after he was placed with a new teacher two weeks into the school year.
In an email to Degner, shared with The Gazette, William wrote that he would “love, love, love it” if the superintendent could make his original teacher teach his sixth-grade class again.
“I was angry, a bit emotional,” William said. “I wanted to make sure my voice was heard and wanted to let them know how I felt in that situation.”
While William said he hasn’t received a response from school board members, he has struck up a friendship with Degner.
“I am so sorry this change has affected you and for your sadness,” Degner wrote to William in an email shared with The Gazette. “We’re trying to help students in other schools in the district. Keep being great and have a good year.”
Robin Follmer, William’s mother, said it was “traumatic” for him.
“He came home crying. In that short amount of time, he got to know his teacher really well and felt safe,” she said.
Leslie Austen has three daughters in Iowa City Schools — Sophia, 12, at Northwest Junior High, and Josie, 11, and Claire, 7, at Wickham Elementary School.
Josie’s fifth-grade class was combined with another class a few days in to the school year, going from about 20 students to 30.
“I know her teacher is wonderful, fabulous and amazing, but I know you can’t teach 30 kids the same way you’d be able to teach 25,” said Austen, who is a substitute teacher. “Especially where some of them missed in-person fourth grade.”
“I don’t understand the disruption and why it’s OK to do this to kids and teachers,” Austen said.
Chris Nance’s children are in fifth and third grades at Wickham Elementary School. His son, Grayson, 10, a fifth-grader, was placed with a new teacher two weeks into the school year and about 10 students were added to his class.
“Large class sizes make it harder to social distance,” Nance said. “We’re worried about them getting COVID-19, and we would hope they would get more individualized attention in a smaller class.
Nance also is counting down the days until his kids can be vaccinated.
“We’d go get it at 3 o’clock if it was approved at 2:41 p.m.,” Nance said. “There’s no reason on God’s green earth why anyone shouldn’t get vaccinated.”
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