Iowa’s public school districts and accredited private schools must “take all efforts” to resume face-to-face education when the new school year begins, Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered in a proclamation Friday that frustrated the state’s largest teachers union and may upend plans Iowa City schools already had for fall.
“The expectation is, especially with core subjects, that over 50 percent of those subjects be offered in the school building,” Reynolds said during a news conference in Van Meter.
Schools or school districts that wish to move to remote learning due to public health conditions in their communities must first get approval from the Iowa Department of Education, which will consult with the Iowa Department of Public Health, according to the proclamation.
The proclamation allows for remote learning if parents select it from among other options; if, in consultation with state and local public health officials, a school determines individual students or classrooms must move online; or if schools choose to have online instruction in lieu of a snow day.
Reynolds said she worries students will lack opportunities to socialize, develop social and emotional skills, eat healthy meals and lose access to other supports if schools do not reopen.
“Students learn best when they’re in school,” she said. “For all of the wonders of online and distanced learning — and it does play a role — it’s not a replacement for in-person classes. We also can’t forget the critical role that our schools play in addressing inequities for our most vulnerable student populations.”
School districts for months have been developing their own plans for the start of the school year at the direction of the Iowa Department of Education. Department officials told districts and private schools to plan for three scenarios: in-person, virtual or a hybrid of the two.
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Those were due to the state July 1, and department officials said it would be up to the local districts and school boards to decide which scenario to implement.
But Friday’s proclamation made clear face-to-face instruction will be expected. It came after at least one school board in the state, Iowa City’s, had already voted to reopen 100 percent online.
Asked why schools were told to plan for online-only instruction, Education Department spokeswoman Heather Doe said it “was necessary so that school districts and accredited non-public schools are prepared should there be an imminent need to move to an online learning model based on virus activity in their schools and communities.”
She said Senate File 2310, which Reynolds signed two days before the Return to Learn plans were due, required schools to specify that “in-person instruction is the presumed method of instruction.”
Brady Shutt, president of the Iowa City Community School District’s teachers’ union, said he was “profoundly frustrated” by the proclamation and said the governor’s interpretation of SF 2310 should have come weeks ago.
“Until we have the ability to examine the waiver process discussed briefly at this morning’s press conference, we have a very serious concern that the state of Iowa has established late-in-the-process rules that will have the effect of denying local school districts the ability to do what is right for the health and safety of its community, during a global pandemic,” he said in a statement. “This is unacceptable.”
pandemic worsened while schools closed
Schools across Iowa have been closed since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, and most are set to start the 2020-2021 school year in late August.
During their closure, the presence of COVID-19 has worsened.
On Friday, Iowa reported 802 new positive COVID-19 cases — the second time this week the daily case count topped 800. Friday’s surge follows a record- setting 839 new cases from Thursday.
Iowa also has been identified as one of 18 states with a “red zone” of coronavirus test positivity rates.
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The White House Coronavirus Task Force document, which went unpublicized until Thursday when it was unearthed by the Center for Public Integrity, advised requiring face masks in 47 of Iowa’s 99 counties and limiting gatherings to 10 people in five counties.
It identified 42 counties, including Johnson County, as a “yellow zone” that should limit gatherings to 25 people.
Reynolds said “schools won’t be able to completely prevent transmission of COVID-19” in reopening in-person, but noted precautions can reduce risks.
“I know this is not going to be easy, I know it’s going to require some changes to how things are done in the classroom,” she said. “But given the importance of education to our children and the people of Iowa, we owe it to them to just roll up our sleeves and get our schools back up and running safely and effectively.”
Her proclamation also expanded the definition of who can be authorized to substitute teach in an Iowa classroom, as some substitute teachers — many of whom are older, retired teachers — consider the risks of returning to classrooms.
Reynolds allowed substitute authorizations to be given to career and tech teachers already in the classroom, paraeducators and anyone who has an associate degree or has taken two years of college courses. She also removed limits on how often and how long substitutes can teach.
Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association teachers union, called the order shortsighted.
“We stand behind those school districts that are making good decisions about the health and safety of the people in their care,” he said in a statement. “Instead of making it even harder to keep our schools safe, the Governor needs to empower school districts, staff and parents to decide what is best for their kids and communities.”
Effects on Iowa City and Cedar Rapids
The Iowa City district’s plans for online-only learning could be unraveled now.
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“As we prepare to return to face-to-face learning in the fall, some plans will need adjustments,” Ann Lebo, director of the Iowa Department of Education, said during the news conference Friday.
On Tuesday, the Iowa Citys school board voted to delay reopening school buildings until October at the earliest. Board President Shawn Eyestone said the district and the board will need time to process details of the proclamation, but expect to be affected.
“I was extremely frustrated watching the press conference as the Governor was touting local control, but was actively taking away local control,” he said in an email.
The board had unanimously voted to delay face-to-face instruction until at least Oct. 6. COVID-19 cases have climbed in Johnson County this summer as younger Iowans returned to restaurants and bars.
Cedar Rapids Community School District officials have not yet presented a final plan.
Cedar Rapids Superintendent Noreen Bush said she expects the Education Department to provide more clarity during a Monday webinar.
“We have tried to keep our plan flexible as we know that information changes almost daily through this time,” Bush said in a statement. “I think all districts will want some further clarifications from the Department of Education before we alter any of our plans.”
The district is hosting several community feedback sessions next week on reopening plans at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Monday’s meetings will be at Washington High School, Tuesday’s at Harding Middle School and Wednesday’s at Jefferson High School. Every meeting will be available on Zoom.
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