CORONAVIRUS

Keeping 6 feet distance a challenge now that Iowa schools are required to offer in-person learning

K-12 schools required to offer 100 percent in-person learning option starting Feb. 15

A student rubs in hand sanitizer as she gets off the bus Sept. 21, 2020, at Viola Gibson Elementary School in Cedar Rapi
A student rubs in hand sanitizer as she gets off the bus Sept. 21, 2020, at Viola Gibson Elementary School in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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With more students returning to classrooms this month under a new state law requiring that option, some Eastern Iowa school leaders say they are concerned about maintaining social distancing in class — raising fears of increased exposure to COVID-19.

In the Iowa City Community School District, students have had the choice of either hybrid learning — attending in-person in either A or B days and attending online on the opposite days — or online learning.

But with less room for social distancing as more students return, Iowa City schools Superintendent Matt Degner is among those concerned the district will see an influx in the number of both students and staff having to quarantine.

On Friday, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law Senate File 160, which requires K-12 schools to offer a 100 percent in-person learning option by Feb. 15.

Supporters of the measure cited concerns about students not in schools falling behind in their education, possible mental health issues for isolated students and students at risk of abuse not being at school and under the supervision of mandatory reporters.

Families will have five days to choose if they want their children enrolled in in-person learning or another option offered by their district, such as entirely online.

“We have some families excited about that option, happy to return to school five days a week in-person,” Degner said.

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The transmission of the novel coronavirus in schools is low if the proper precautions are taken, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this month.

Precautions include wearing masks, social distancing at least 6 feet between people and keep student cohorts small to limit the number of people who must quarantine if they are exposed.

But some Eastern Iowa school officials worry they won’t be able to maintain proper social distancing, including in Iowa City where Degner said the district will not be able to continue offering hybrid learning once it is also required to offer the in-person option.

About 60 percent of the district’s students currently are enrolled in hybrid learning, meaning that only 30 percent of the students overall are in in-person learning any day of the week.

The other 40 percent of the district’s students are enrolled in temporary virtual learning.

Even in hybrid, there are classrooms struggling to distance 6 feet, school board member Janet Godwin said.

Until teachers and school staff are vaccinated for COVID-19, Degner argued schools should not be required to offer in-person learning.

To further complicate matters, Iowa City schools are less than a month away from the end of the trimester. To accommodate students in 100 percent in-person learning, the district will have to make changes to some class schedules.

“It’s going to be a staffing challenge,” Degner said.

Cindy Garlock, a member of the Cedar Rapids Community School District school board, said the law is a concern for the district.

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“This board has been very open about their preference for local control,” Garlock said last week in a board meeting. “This requirement that schools offer 100 percent in-person takes local control away.”

In the Cedar Rapids district, prekindergarten through eighth grade students have had the option of either 100 percent in-person learning or temporary virtual learning since the start of the school year.

But the high schools — Kennedy, Washington, Jefferson and Metro — are in hybrid learning, with students attending in-person either on A or B days and learning online the opposite days. High school students also have the option of temporary virtual learning.

“It’s only our high schools that would be affected by this, but with 1,800 students in a building, it’s difficult to ensure social distancing and safety,” Garlock said.

Between the pandemic and the derecho, Cedar Rapids schools continue to be flexible, Superintendent Noreen Bush said.

“This bill will directly impact how we manage our high school learning models,” Bush said in an email. “Our staff, administrative team and board members have been offering what we believe to be not only the safest models, but also accessible instructional models in our hybrid and remote options.

“We will be adjusting our high school model to accommodate 100 percent in-person learning, keeping safety paramount.”

Linn-Mar Community School District prekindergarten through sixth grade students have been attending 100 percent in-person learning since Jan. 8.

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Last week, the Linn-Mar school board made the decision to move seventh and eighth grade students to 100 percent in-person learning beginning Feb. 2. Middle school students have been in hybrid learning all January.

Linn-Mar High School had planned to keep hybrid learning to maintain social distancing.

“Local school boards and administrators know the space limitations of their facilities,” Superintendent Shannon Bisgard said in an email. “This discussion will certainly change once teachers, staff and students are able to be vaccinated.”

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

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