CORONAVIRUS

Coronavirus has Iowa K-12 school districts preparing for the worst - closure

Iowa City schools assessing online instruction for students

The Iowa City Community School District Headquarters in Iowa City. (Gazette file photo)
The Iowa City Community School District Headquarters in Iowa City. (Gazette file photo)

With more than a dozen Iowans in self-quarantine after testing positive for the novel coronavirus, school districts across the state are assessing how they could continue to reach their students if schools needed to close.

In Johnson County, where most of the patients in Iowa who have tested positive for COVID-19 live, the Iowa City Community School District is reviewing how it could provide remote, online instruction to its roughly 14,000 students.

“We know, no matter what the current state of coronavirus in the state of Iowa is, we know that a school closure is a possibility,” said Adam Kurth, the Iowa City district’s director of technology. “No matter what, we have to plan for that possibility.”

No K-12 schools in Iowa have closed due to concerns over the coronavirus, though more than 1,500 schools in the United States were closed or scheduled to close due to the outbreak as of Wednesday, including eight in eastern Nebraska, according to Education Week.

Face-to-face classes at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa have been canceled at least until April 3.

School officials in Iowa are monitoring those measures and relying on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Iowa Department of Health.

Whether Iowa City schools will close remains “the million dollar question,” Kurth said.

A Challenge

Without a clear answer, Iowa City school officials are assessing the district’s capacity to provide virtual instruction.

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“We’d want to avoid having something like a ‘summer slide’ that would occur in the middle of the school year,” Kurth said, referring to students’ typical academic decline over summer break. “In the event schools would close, we want to make sure kids are remaining as engaged during that closure as possible.”

It’s unlikely the district’s online instruction would legally fulfill Iowa’s instructional time requirements, he added.

A spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education said the state is reviewing its options.

“While current law doesn’t allow the Department of Education to grant waivers, we understand the unique circumstances of this situation and are actively exploring potential next steps to assist school districts,” Staci Hupp said.

In Iowa City, all high school and junior high students have Chromebooks, and the district provides home internet access to students who need it, Kurth said.

“For younger kids, it’s really going to be dependent upon parents,” he said. “ ... If we had an opt-in curriculum but couldn’t require it or communicate it out before a closure, we would have real concerns about reaching especially younger kids, who don’t necessarily have access to a caregiver at home who’s aware of it.”

Teachers in the Iowa City district have not been trained to provide instruction online. Kurth said the district would try to give “any training or guidance” to teachers as soon as the district foresees a closure.

Teachers Untrained

In the Cedar Rapids Community School District, officials also are reviewing instructional options, though the district does not provide a laptop or tablet to most of its students.

The district in Linn County — where no residents have tested positive for coronavirus — introduced a laptop program for high-schoolers this school year.

“Even at the high school level, we’re not scaled up with all of our teachers. ... All of our staff has not had detailed training around online learning,” said Rod Dooley, Cedar Rapids schools’ executive director of equity. “We would have to look at multiple means of providing support through electronic means and print materials — like reading packets, math work sheets, novels and those kinds of things.”

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He said the district is working with the state Education Department and would need permission to offer online instruction.

“If kids are out for some period of time, we want to do all we can to help them continue their education,” Dooley said. “Whether or not it’s going to count kind of doesn’t matter because we need to continue to provide them support.”

If schools closed, the district would also need to continue to provide breakfast and lunch to students. Dooley said administrators have been talking with the district’s Food and Nutrition Department about how to best provide “grab-and-go” meals to students.

“Our hope is that we wouldn’t have to go down this path,” Dooley said. “I hope our community continues to keep themselves healthy.”

In a newsletter this month about preventing a coronavirus outbreak, School Administrators of Iowa Legal Services Director Matt Carver said districts have the authority to require increased hand-washing among students and staff, restrict school visitors and supply masks for coughing and sneezing students and teachers.

“While no one wants to close a building due to the spread of a virus, temporary school closure always remains one option that school officials have at their disposal to prevent further spreading of a virus or illness,” he wrote.

The newsletter was distributed to some 2,000 administrators in Iowa.

Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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