CORONAVIRUS

Iowa students and parents make hard back-to-school choices

Both virtual and hybrid models present drawbacks

Dan Stevenson, a North Liberty teacher, poses for a photo with his kids Dahlia, 9, and Hayden, 7, at their home in Iowa
Dan Stevenson, a North Liberty teacher, poses for a photo with his kids Dahlia, 9, and Hayden, 7, at their home in Iowa City on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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On the first day of school, Daniel Kenyon will get out of bed, walk over to the desk in his bedroom, open up his school-issued laptop and meet his teachers at South East Junior High School virtually.

Daniel, 12, and his family made the decision earlier this summer to enroll him and his 14-year-old brother in online-only classes this fall as a precaution against the coronavirus.

“I’m a little upset we can’t go back to school, but it’s obviously not safe to do that right now. I’m glad we can be safe,” Daniel said.

Almost half of students in the Iowa City Community School District have registered for the online learning program. The other option is a hybrid model, where students attend classes 50 percent on-site and 50 percent online.

The decision between online only versus a hybrid model is one thousands of students and families in Eastern Iowa have had to make.

Mary Kenyon, Daniel’s mother, said it’s heartbreaking for her two children, who both would have been starting at new junior high and high schools this year.

“It’s a milestone they won’t experience in the way we expected,” she said.

Mary has confidence in the district and her son’s teachers as they endeavor to teach online.

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With she and her husband also working from home, however, she worries if their internet connection will be strong enough for the four of them to use at the same time. She also worries for the safety of staff and students in the district who have to return to on-site learning.

“I don’t allow myself to go to the place where I might have to tell my kids your best friend is sick,” Mary said. “Those are losses we will have to face as a community.”

It didn’t have to be like this, Mary said. If the state, including Gov. Kim Reynolds, had prioritized returning to school in August by again closing bars, restaurants and stores, they might have been able to return to classrooms safely, Mary said.

Mary said she is proud of the Iowa City school board for pursuing litigation, with the Iowa State Education Association, against Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Education for their interpretation of Senate File 2310, which gives guidance to reopening schools during the pandemic.

Under the governor’s interpretation, she is requiring schools provide at least 50 percent in-person learning to students, though Iowa City initially planned to start the school year online only for all students.

Choosing the hybrid model

Hayden, 7, and Dahlia, 9, Stevenson are returning to school at Lemme Elementary School in the Iowa City district in the hybrid option — attending classes half on-site and half online.

Their parents are both going to back to work full-time, and the online-only option wasn’t feasible for the family.

“I am very concerned with the level of community spread,” said Dan Stevenson, Hayden and Dahlia’s father.

Dan is a teacher at West Liberty Middle School in the West Liberty Community School District.

Who will watch Hayden and Dahlia while they are learning online part-time is “completely up in the air,” Dan said.

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“I hope we will return to sanity and have virtual education,” Dan said, adding that he wishes he could have spent this summer as a teacher preparing an online classroom instead of waiting to hear what his school district’s return to learn plan would be after hearing late guidance from the governor’s office.

“I am supportive of what the districts are doing, making an effort to do their best for the students under what is a terrible system,” he said.

Before the deadline to make a choice, about 35 percent of the students in the Cedar Rapids Community School District chose the online-only option — more than the district had expected. But the majority of the Cedar Rapids students planned to return to learn under the hybrid model.

Jefferson High School classmates Ava Miles, 16, and Tyler Brueggemeyer, 15, are among those who chose the hybrid.

While the date of the first day of school and just how instruction will be delivered are in flux after the Aug. 10 storm damaged 30 Cedar Rapids school properties, Ava said she chose the hybrid because she feels like she learns best in-person.

“I would have gone back in-person full time if I could have,” she said.

Ava said she does worry about getting COVID-19, but she is taking precautions with wearing a mask, social distancing and washing her hands frequently.

Tyler chose the hybrid model because he thought it would help him keep his grades up.

The sophomore at Jefferson said that while wearing a mask in-class will be uncomfortable, he believes it’s necessary.

“I am still a little worried, but if everyone wears a mask I think it will be good. We need to get back to normalcy,” he said.

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Tyler said teachers have expressed to him their concern that the district will be all-online within the first couple weeks of school.

“I think there is a very high chance that could happen, and I am prepared for it because I realize it’s very likely to have an outbreak of COVID-19 in one of the schools,” he said.

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

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