CORONAVIRUS

To get kids back in Iowa schools, Gov. Reynolds indicates she will push for law requiring it

A remodeled classroom at Prairie Heights Elementary in the College Community School District, pictured Monday, shows stu
A remodeled classroom at Prairie Heights Elementary in the College Community School District, pictured Monday, shows student desks spaced apart. College Community is among the area school districts that reached critical points last month of trying to maintain enough staffing for in-person learning, (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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JOHNSTON — Gov. Kim Reynolds reiterated her belief Wednesday that K-12 students should be in the classroom, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in doing so appeared to indicate she will push for a requirement that all districts offer students an option for 100 percent in-person instruction.

During a news conference at Iowa PBS studios, Reynolds cited studies showing the virus does not spread as rapidly among school-aged children as it does adults, and expressed concern that students who are learning remotely could fall behind.

The Republican governor invited to speak at her news conference Sarah Barthole, an Ankeny school district parent who has urged that district to resume full-time, in-person instruction. Ankeny this school year has alternated between a hybrid schedule that meets the state’s threshold for at least half in-person instruction and fully remote learning.

Reynolds praised Barthole’s advocacy for full-time instruction, and the governor ended her news conference by appealing to parents to become advocates for schools resuming their in-person instruction.

“I think parents need the opportunity to also have the (option) to go 100 percent in the classroom,” Reynolds said. “I would just encourage parents out there to talk to your educators, talk to your school boards, and let’s get our kids back in school.”

» READ MORE: COVID is rarely spread in Iowa classrooms — it’s spread in communities, local health officials say

As of Monday, 26 of Iowa’s 300-plus school districts had at least one building that was in hybrid or fully remote instruction, according to state Education Department data.

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Many districts seeking waivers for online learning have said they don’t have enough staff — teachers, bus drivers, custodians, lunchroom employees — available even if students were forced to be in schools.

Over half a dozen Eastern Iowa districts began transitioning to online-only instruction after receiving the temporary waivers from the Iowa Department of Education in mid-November citing staffing shortages — not student absences.

The Cedar Rapids Community School District, for one, was in temporary online learning from Nov. 12 to Dec. 4, because of staff absences that impacted every department — including teachers, bus drivers and food service employees — who were out with a case of COVID-19 or in a 14-day quarantine.

College Community, Clear Creek Amana, Central City, Alburnett and Springville are among other area school districts that reached critical points last month of being able to maintain enough staffing for in-person learning.

Reynolds said that if state law is to change the way she advocated, it must start with lawmakers when they return in January for the 2021 legislative session.

“Fifty percent of in-person learning shouldn’t be a limiting factor; it should be a starting point,” Reynolds said. “Now we can use the knowledge that we’ve gained and the overwhelming evidence that now exists to get our students back in the classroom full time and make up for the learning that they’ve lost.”

Any legislative proposal would have to start with fellow Republicans, who hold majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, scheduled to convene Jan. 11.

“I would be happy to work with the governor on legislation to ensure a safe, 100 percent in-person option for students in Iowa public schools,” Jack Whitver, the Iowa Senate Majority Leader from Ankeny, said in an emailed response to a question. “After missing months of school this spring and at best a disjointed fall semester, the loss of instructional time is showing up in declining student test scores. In-person education is vital to keep students from falling further behind and to help them recover the knowledge and skills they have lost this year.”

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A spokesman for Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Over the past two weeks, 12 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Iowa were among children 17 years or younger, according to state public health data. That same age group represents 23 percent of Iowa’s population, census data shows.

Reynolds said state case investigation data suggests most COVID-19 cases in schools have been the result of transmission outside of school, and that most cases are occurring among staff not students.

Schoolteachers and staff are in the second tier of workers who will become eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine under the state’s distribution plan. Hospital workers and staff and residents at long-term care facilities comprise the first group.

Asked if the state forces schools to return to 100 percent in-person instruction, or offer that option to all students, whether it also will prioritize school staff in that second round of vaccinations, Reynolds referred to a working group that begins meeting Thursday.

“We’ve had a lot of correspondence about different workforces that feel that they’re essential workers so we’re collecting all of those and then the group will start to work though some of those decision points,” Reynolds said.

Grace King of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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