CEDAR RAPIDS — With its schools left badly damaged by Monday’s derecho storm — some of them facing weeks or months of repairs — the Cedar Rapids Community School District may get dispensation to begin fall classes online.
Gov. Kim Reynolds, who toured hard-hit Kennedy High School, will work on a “different proclamation” to address the damage, she said during a news conference Friday in Cedar Rapids.
The governor made a proclamation several weeks ago — before the storm struck — exhorting Iowa schools to provide at least half of core subject instruction in-person, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re going to continue to work with them to help meet their needs to make sure that our kids are getting their needs met as well,” Reynolds said. “We think we’re going to do a different proclamation that will address some of the damage that’s been done by the severe storms. ... We have been working with our school districts across the state to help them stand our schools back up and get our kids educated.”
After her news conference, the governor toured Kennedy High with Superintendent Noreen Bush and others.
“She has spent all day in Cedar Rapids, she sees the devastation in the community, and you can’t drive two blocks without seeing one of our buildings on the corner,” Bush said.
Bush said it will take months of recovery before staff and students will be able to enter some buildings, and that she told Reynolds because of the pandemic, the district is prepared to start school online. The district also will look at options for “online access” to help students.
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“We’re prepared to put a device into everyone’s hand. We made a plan. We wanted to be sure if we were in a situation where we had to go completely online, we were prepared,” Bush said.
The district already was prepared to teach 35 percent of students online only — an option families had instead of a hybrid version of in-person and online classes. While the district was prepared to go one-to-one with technology this year, some computers that were going to be distributed to students may have been damaged in the storm, Bush said.
Bush said that even if the district were able to get students back into schools, she can’t imagine school buses would be able to navigate streets around town.
“Our community is crushed. We won’t have access to get students to school even if we wanted to right out of the gate,” she said.
Reynolds and Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo “will be looking at creating opportunities for districts like ours to have flexibility in how we can school our kids,” Bush said.
Bush said that during the floods of 2008 and 2016, the district got some forgiveness from the state.
“I think we would certainly be in a qualifying situation for forgiveness of some school days,” Bush said.
The district’s insurance company will finish assessing buildings by the end of next week, Bush said. After the district knows the extent of the damage, it will start prioritizing construction projects. This week, buildings were temporarily repaired with rubber roofing to keep out more rain, and they are being dried out, Bush said.
The worst-hit schools were Kennedy, Jefferson and Washington high schools, Bush said.
Some elementary schools were not “as deeply affected” as other buildings, she said.
Some students may have the ability to return to in-person learning more quickly than others, she said.
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“What we’ve heard the most from elementary families is they need to get back to work. They can’t work from home forever. Their companies want them back on-site and they want their kids in school,” Bush said.
“I think we want to be safe, but trying to train our kindergartners online, especially with families who aren’t prepared to continue to stay at home with their 5-year-olds, that’s going to be a challenge.”
Bush wants the district to focus on the community’s basic needs, including lunches for students. The district was feeding 30,000 meals a week throughout the summer in a program that ended last week.
Because of storm damage, the district doesn’t have kitchens to put together meals for students, Bush said.
Before the storm, the district was working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get approval for students who choose the online-only option to get a school lunch, but had not received an answer.
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James Q. Lynch of The Gazette contributed to this report.
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