JOHNSTON, Iowa — At least two school districts in Iowa are refusing to follow the governor’s demand that they return students to classrooms, rebuffing the idea that the state can override what local officials believe is the safest way to educate their children as coronavirus spreads in their counties.
Gov. Kim Reynolds on Tuesday reiterated that the state will require at least half of a school’s instruction to be held in person and the state will decide when K-12 schools can send students home based on community virus spread and student illnesses.
Reynolds’ policy would allow exceptions only if counties have coronavirus positivity rates of 15% to 20% over a two-week period, and at least 10% of students absent. If granted, such waivers for remote-only learning would expire after 14 days.
Under the policy individual parents can choose online learning from home.
On Monday school officials in Waukee said they would not seek permission from the state to keep students at home, citing three sections of Iowa law that they believe give school boards local authority to decide what’s best for them.
“We further believe decisions regarding the health and safety of our students, staff, and the general community are best made by those most closely associated with the decision-making,” said a statement posted by Superintendent Brad Buck and the board on the district’s website. It said they will not be following state guidance and will not request permission from state education officials to temporarily change the learning model should the need arise. Buck was the director of the Iowa Department of Education under Reynolds’ predecessor Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.
Reynolds, a Republican, is a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, who has insisted that students return to classes even as case numbers soar nationwide. She said school districts in the seven Iowa counties with high positivity rates can apply this week to start the year with at least partial at-home learning for two weeks insisting that districts have needed flexibility.
She said at a news conference Tuesday that districts will not be credited for days of home learning not approved by the state and that school administrators may be subject to “licensure discipline.”
“I want to be very clear schools that choose not to return to school for at least 50 percent in person instruction are not defying me, they’re defying the law,” she said.
The Iowa Legislature passed a law earlier this year that indicated in-school learning should be the primary mode of K-12 education. It gave the governor flexibility in how to administer the law during a health care emergency like the coronavirus pandemic. Reynolds said her interpretation of the law is that it requires at least 50 percent in-school instruction.
When asked about the concerns of school board members that students could get sick or elderly teachers could die from COVID-19 she at first accused the news media of scare tactics but later apologized for being accusatory.
“It would be naive for us to think that at no point were not going to see positive case in school districts. We’ve seen positive cases in long-term care facilities. I’ve seen elderly people die because they’re the most vulnerable. Do you think as the governor I appreciate standing up here reporting those out? Were doing everything we can to make sure were protecting the health and well being of Iowans,” she said.
Board members in Urbandale, another suburban Des Moines district, voted Monday night to defy the state orders. after the state denied a request for Rolling Green Elementary students to continue online learning. The school began with online classes on July 23 and was authorized by the state to continue them until Aug. 6. When the district asked the state to continue online, the state on Monday said no, which meant the district had to scramble to prepare the school for students’ return in just a few days.
“I don’t feel like we can safely have students in class this quickly,” said board member Judy Downs.
Officials at Des Moines Public Schools, the largest district in the state with 33,000 students and 5,000 employees, also appear prepared to reject the Reynolds administration mandate. Superintendent Tom Ahart said Friday the district could not safely open with students in classrooms.
“Whether in person or online, our teachers live to support the success of their students. But I am not going to put our staff — or their students and families — in the position of getting sick for that purpose. We can return to learn in a way that is smart, safe and realistic,” he said.
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He proposed starting school the day after Labor Day and begin with all online classes until it’s safe for students to return. The district had not yet heard as of Tuesday afternoon whether the proposal has been accepted by state officials.
Polk County, where the school districts are located in central Iowa, has more than 9,700 known positive cases of coronavirus and an overall positivity rate — the percentage of people tested with positive results — of 11.7%.
Statewide, hospitalizations and patients in intensive care have trended upward in the past month although still below the highs reached in May.
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