CORONAVIRUS

Iowa City schools, teachers union sue state over school reopening rules

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

IOWA CITY — The Iowa City Community School District is pursuing litigation to challenge Gov. Kim Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Education’s interpretation of Senate File 2310, which gives guidance to reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Iowa State Education Association teachers union invited the district to join its lawsuit against the Governor’s Office, which it plans to file later this week.

School board members voted unanimously Tuesday evening to join the litigation, saying they wanted to protect local control and create their own metrics for a safe return to school.

The school board also voted to direct Interim Superintendent Matt Degner to create metrics to establish transition points between online learning, hybrid and in-person instruction in the event they win the litigation and are able to determine for themselves what a safe return to school looks like.

The decision to join the Iowa State Education Association’s litigation is “not taken lightly,” school board member Janet Godwin said.

She said the district “operated in good faith” as it began putting together return to learn plans this summer.

“We voted as a board to start school online,” Godwin said. “A few days later, we had very different guidance coming from the state, which did not feel like it was offered in good faith.”

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In July, the school board voted to begin the school year 100 percent virtually. That changed when days later, Reynolds announced students must attend school in-person for 50 percent of the time. Schools that defy the governor’s proclamation could suffer consequences, including superintendents losing their licenses and students not receiving credit.

Before school districts can request to hold classes virtually, their counties must have at least a 15 percent positivity rate of COVID-19 cases during a 14-day period, and 10 percent of students must be absent from school.

Even though the district does not meet the governor’s metrics to qualify for virtual learning, it submitted a request to the Department of Education to start the year online. The request was denied earlier this month.

School board President Shawn Eyestone said if the district is “handcuffed” into following the state’s metrics, “we could get into some dicey situations.”

School board member JP Claussen said the metrics the governor is using “don’t seem to be designed to keep our staff and students safe from COVID-19.”

“I think the governor is interpreting the law, and it’s up to the courts to interpret the law,” he said.

Iowa’s “rich tradition of local control” was “cast aside and disregarded” by Reynolds, school board member Lisa Williams said.

Before students can return to in-person classes, counties need to have low transmission rates of COVID-19 to assure the safety of students and staff, school board member Charlie Eastham said.

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“It’s confusing to me why the state government is taking the position they’re taking,” Eastham said. “My job is to look after, as best I can, students and staff in this district, and that’s what I want to do.”

Degner said most of the cost of the litigation will be the responsibility of the Iowa State Education Association, and there will not be a “substantial” cost to the district.

Its only cost will be local legal counsel, he said.

To help slow the spread of the coronavirus, the school board earlier this month approved delaying the first day of school to Sept. 8.

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

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