CORONAVIRUS

Iowa teachers union attorney argues in-person class mandate puts schools in 'dangerous and precarious' situation

Judge will rule next week on temporary injunction to stop mandate

Teachers from Wickham Elementary drive through a Coralville neighborhood March 30 to say hello to their students after s
Teachers from Wickham Elementary drive through a Coralville neighborhood March 30 to say hello to their students after schools were closed this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. The state teachers union argued in court Thursday against the governor’s proclamation mandating districts offer at least 50 percent of classes this school year in-person. They believe it is not safe. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The attorney for a state teachers union argued in court Thursday that Gov. Kim Reynolds is placing Iowa school districts in a “dangerous and precarious” situation with her “one size fits all” mandate that requires the majority of K-12 classes be in-person during a pandemic.

During the hearing, Christy Hickman, who represents the Iowa State Education Association, asked a judge for a temporary injunction to stop the governor’s mandate while the lawsuit goes through the court system.

She cited Johnson County’s coronavirus statistics, which she called “staggering,” to make her case that online learning was needed.

Hickman said Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Education are failing to keep students, their families, educators and the community safe by requiring districts to offer at least 50 percent of its instruction in-person.

One of the requirements for a temporary injunction, she said, is to prevent “irreparable harm” that could result from Reynolds’ mandate.

Governor’s powers

Iowa Solicitor General Jeffery Thompson, arguing for the state, cautioned the court against granting the “extraordinary” relief being sought by the teachers union because it would invalidate an emergency proclamation by a governor.

He questioned whether the district court even has jurisdiction over the matter. The lawsuit “treads” on separation of powers, and the injunction shouldn’t be granted, he argued.

He also urged the judge to read the subsection of Senate File 2310 in dispute because it states school districts cannot take action to provide primarily remote learning unless authorized by the governor.

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The new law wouldn’t allow for any remote learning without the governor’s mandate, which allowed up to 50 percent, he said.

“The bottom line is ... the governor has broad powers,” he said.

Johnson virus cases

The Iowa Department of Education gave the Iowa City Community School District permission to start the year with two weeks of online classes, but there is no guarantee the department will allow remote learning beyond Sept. 22 if the coronavirus positivity rate stays above 15 percent or 20 percent, which is the department’s criteria for online learning.

The positivity rate in Johnson County, according to Thursday’s 24-hour coronavirus statistics, was 28.5 percent, and the number of new cases in the county has been in the triple digits for nine consecutive days.

Johnson County has reported more coronavirus cases — 4,209 since March — than any county in Iowa except Polk.

Ruling next week

Sixth Judicial District Judge Mary Chicchelly asked the parties to provide affidavits of their case for her review. She said she expects to file her ruling next week, “barring any unforeseen circumstances.”

Hickman asked Chicchelly to also consider the affidavits submitted by members of the teachers union and by medical experts about the coronavirus.

In court, Joseph Holland, also an attorney for the teachers union, said everybody wants to have in-person learning, and the Iowa City school board “agonized over going remotely,” but it was the safe option for students and staff. He said the Iowa City school district, which joined ISEA in the lawsuit, consulted with the county health department, which recommended 100 percent remote education.

The Governor’s Office, in a statement after the hearing, did not address the temporary injunction but did say the lawsuit “is without merit.”

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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