CORONAVIRUS

Iowa City schools moving online starting Monday

Surging cases make contact tracing 'increasingly difficult'

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)

IOWA CITY — The Iowa City Community School District agreed Tuesday to shift its schools to virtual learning for two weeks starting next week after receiving approval from the Iowa Department of Education.

Interim Superintendent Matt Degner said that while there are schools he is concerned about being able to continue normal operations with the number of staff home sick or on quarantine, he wants to wait to shift students from hybrid to fully virtual learning until Monday to give parents some time to find child care and teachers time to prepare instruction.

While the waiver takes the district through Thanksgiving break, with students returning Nov. 30, Degner said board members can reevaluate it at their next board meeting Nov. 24.

Degner said contact tracing is becoming “increasingly difficult” as coronavirus cases rise in Johnson County.

School nurses are “working day and night. It’s constant. It’s hard to keep up with the amount of contact tracing we’re being expected to do on a consistent basis,” he said.

Students and staff should notify the district if they test positive for the coronavirus while in virtual learning so the district has accurate data to make a decision about returning to in-person classes in two weeks, Degner said.

School board member Dromi Etsey said it’s “unfortunate” that the district needs to move to online classes because she already sees students struggling with going to school in the hybrid model — taking classes on-site for two or three days a week and online for the other days.

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Assistant Superintendent Amy Kortemeyer said mental health of students is “top of mind.” The district has implemented a digital social-emotional learning curriculum this year for teachers to help students be aware of their own emotions and feelings.

At the high schools, a social-emotional wellness app is being launched. It helps students evaluate their mental and emotional health and access resources if needed.

The district will continue operating seven sites for grab-and-go school meals for online learners.

Iowa City schools started the year virtually Sept. 8, transitioning to hybrid learning two weeks later.

But as of Tuesday evening, Iowa City schools had 132 students and 30 staff positive for COVID-19, 474 students and 92 staff in quarantine and 17 classrooms closures.

The state Department of Education has granted waivers to 24 school districts in Iowa seeking to switch students to remote learning due to outbreaks of the virus.

Department of Education Director Ann Lebo said another three waiver requests are being reviewed and likely would meet the state’s guidance criteria of at least 10 percent student absenteeism and/or a COVID-19 positivity rate in their counties to temporarily move to online instruction.

Since Nov. 1, Lebo said less than 6 percent of Iowa’s 446 public and non-public schools and 1,300 school buildings have sought waivers and local officials have flexibility in deciding whether to immediately transition to remote learning for 48 hours while awaiting a state waiver decision or to move one or more grade levels or sections of a building to remote instruction without approval.

School waiver requests have varied due to county COVID-19 positivity rates, student absenteeism and, in some cases, staff absences.

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Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, issued a statement Tuesday saying the governor’s latest proclamation aimed at slowing a spike in coronavirus cases in Iowa failed to “fight COVID-19 head on” and does nothing to stop COVID-19 in schools.

According to his group’s tracking, almost 40 percent of Iowa schools lack a mask mandate, Beranek said in calling on the governor to ‘mandate masks and lift the waiver requirement through the end of winter break.”

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

Rod Boshart of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.

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