CORONAVIRUS

Teachers union, Iowa City schools still seek stop to governor's mandate of in-person classes

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks July 30 at a news conference in Des Moines on the state's guidance for returning to school
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks July 30 at a news conference in Des Moines on the state’s guidance for returning to school in response to the coronavirus outbreak, (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

IOWA CITY — Although the Iowa Department of Education gave Iowa City schools permission to start the year with two weeks of online classes, a statewide teachers union and the Iowa City school district still will ask a judge Thursday to temporarily stop Gov. Kim Reynolds’ requirement that the majority of classes be in-person during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Iowa State Education Association and the Iowa City Community School District will argue the temporary injunction is necessary to give the court time to consider their lawsuit against Reynolds and the department, which contends the governor exceeded her authority in requiring that schools must have 50 percent of their instruction in person.

They say local school districts have primary authority over their education plans, and the governor’s order violates her constitutional duty to protect the health and welfare of Iowa citizens.

The department has permitted Iowa City schools to conduct classes remotely for only two weeks, Sept. 8-22. But the new law — SF 2310 — that the governor’s emergency proclamation is based upon addresses the entire year, the public educators note.

It also is unclear whether the department could revoke its permission for the two-week period or if it would allow remote learning after Sept. 22, they said.

“Not knowing what the future holds on and after Sept. 22 causes management challenges for the district which diverts time, energy and resources from its primary mission of providing education to over 14,000 students,” the educators said in motion filed Monday.

The underlying issues in the petition haven’t changed with the department’s limited permission for remote learning, the educators said. Reynolds’ proclamation was unconstitutional and exceeded her constitutional and statutory authority, according to the lawsuit.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The educators argue the new law, which went into effect June 29, grants authority to districts to decide whether to conduct remote learning and the time period for that instruction.

Reynolds’ administration, when making the proclamation, said the new law states a school district cannot provide instruction “primarily through remote learning,” unless authorized by the governor.

The governor determined that means at least half of instruction must be in-person classes, but the educators’ lawsuit is asking the court to define what “primarily” means in that clause.

Reynolds made the proclamation after some districts, including Iowa City and Des Moines, announced plans to start the year with all online instruction.

The lawsuit also notes that Reynolds said the districts that conduct online learning without her approval will not receive credit for that instructional time, and that school administrators could face licensure discipline from the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners. The temporary injunction would prohibit Reynolds from taking any enforcement or punitive measures until the matter is settled.

The governor and the Iowa Department of Education will ask the court to deny the injunction, arguing the governor has “extensive” powers to respond to a public health disaster emergency, according to their resistance.

Iowa Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson, in the resistance, said that on July 17 the governor used her authority granted by the new law and authorized school districts to provide remote learning in certain circumstances. Those are: When a child’s parent chooses remote instruction; when the Department of Education, in consultation with the Department of Public Health, approves a district to do so because of public health conditions in the district; when a district determines that students or classrooms must move to online temporarily because of public health conditions; and during bad weather.

If Reynolds hadn’t issued that proclamation, then under the new law, districts wouldn’t have been permitted to provide primarily remote learning at any time, Thompson said.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

He said the union and Iowa City school district can’t show that they will succeed on the merits of the lawsuit, which is required to issue a preliminary injunction. The legal issues raised are not “well-settled,” particularly because this petition arises out of governor’s proclamation for the purpose of implementing new legislation passed during a health pandemic.

Thompson said the Iowa Constitution doesn’t contain any right to local control for school districts. Local school districts have authority to make rules about traffic and parking, allow school employees to use a school credit card, determine the number of school buildings and what school a child should attend, Thompson said. The Iowa Department of Education was created to act in a policymaking and advisory capacity and to have general supervision over the state education system.

Judge Mary Chicchelly, in an order Tuesday, said she will conduct a prehearing status conference by phone with lawyers and their clients Wednesday. The temporary injunction hearing will remain set for Thursday. There will be no live witnesses, only arguments.

The hearing also will limited to allow only those directly involved in the lawsuit to attend in-person because the Johnson County Courthouse has limited space for social distancing.

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

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.