BREAKING NEWS

Judge sides with Gov. Reynolds and Iowa Department of Education regarding limiting remote learning in Iowa City

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 and state teachers union have not met a legal burden for temporarily halting in-person classes, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Mary Chicchelly said the Iowa Constitution delegates certain emergency powers to the governor and Iowa law gives certain powers to Iowa Department of Public Health officials.

Together, Gov. Kim Reynolds and the officials relied on these powers to interpret Senate File 2310 and issue orders to Iowa’s K-12 schools that they must offer at least half of their core classes in person unless parents choose an online-only option or the state grants a waiver.

Despite the ruling against the school district, there will be little practical effect for now.

The Iowa City district’s academic year began Tuesday with online learning for all — after the state had granted the district a two-week waiver from in-person classes due to a local spike in new coronavirus cases.

At Tuesday’s Iowa City school board meeting, members talked about readying a second waiver request for two more weeks of online only, but will decide later whether to submit it.

In her ruling denying the request for an emergency injunction against the state, Chicchelly said the Iowa City district and the Iowa State Education Association — which are suing Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Education — are not likely to show at trial that the governor’s actions are inconsistent with the directives of the law.

Further, the court agreed with the interpretation of SF 2310’s requirement that education “primarily” be in-person is “at least 50 percent” of instruction.

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The Iowa City ruling was the second one Tuesday to side with the state on efforts to temporarily halt in-person classes.

Earlier, Polk County District Judge Jeffrey Farrell denied a motion from the Des Moines Public School System for a temporary injunction.

“This second court decision today again recognizes that we are correctly interpreting Iowa law, and I remain committed to working with the Iowa City Schools and all districts to meet the educational and health needs of Iowa’s children,” Reynolds said in a statement after the dual decisions.

Mike Beranak, president of Iowa State Education Association, said in a statement the union was disappointed in the court’s decision but will continue to review its options and determine how to move forward.

“In the meantime, we will persist in our efforts to ensure our students, school employees and communities are safe. We are undeterred in this commitment,” Beranek added.

The district and union had argued that local control should allow school boards — not the state — to make decisions about remote learning. But the court was not “persuaded” that local control authority outweighs the emergency powers given to the governor by the constitution and Iowa law, the judge stated.

At last week’s hearing, Christy Hickman, an attorney for the union, argued that Reynolds was placing Iowa school districts in a “dangerous and precarious” situation with a “one size fits all” mandate that requires the majority of K-12 classes be in-person during a pandemic.

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

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

In her ruling, Chicchelly said the district and union didn’t show they would be “irreparably harmed” if the temporary injunction wasn’t granted while the lawsuit continues to progress.

She said the governor’s order had worked as it was intended.

The COVID-19 infection rates in the district rose to level that allowed the school board to seek a waiver allowing the academic year to begin with 100 percent remote learning for two weeks. And the district began its academic year under that waiver.

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

Grace King of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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