CORONAVIRUS

Fall start date for Iowa schools emerges again as issue

Governor's emergency order could upend compromise

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DES MOINES — When Gov. Kim Reynolds issued an order April 17 closing Iowa’s K-12 schools for the rest of the academic year, she also said she was waiving the state’s Aug. 23 school start date law so districts and private schools could make local decisions about the length of their 2020-2021 calendars.

A proclamation the Republican governor issued Monday included provisions closing schools and waiving the instructional time and minimum school day requirements until the end of the current school year — but there was no mention of the Aug. 23 school start date waiver.

Reynolds spokesman Pat Garett said Wednesday the governor is finalizing additional waivers with state Department of Education officials and school districts.

That includes the commitment to set aside the requirement that schools start no earlier than Aug. 23 — a provision that could set a precedent that concerns state legislators and may cause problems for the Iowa State Fair if that premiere tourist event proceeds as currently planned from Aug. 13 to Aug. 23 in Des Moines.

Heather Doe, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education, said the governor “has the authority to suspend statutes — including the statute setting the school start date — in response to this unprecedented public health disaster” under Iowa law.

But Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, and House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, say they have been having conversations with Reynolds over the start date.

“Whether or not there is that authority, we’re still having those conversations with the governor’s office to make sure that we understand exactly what that looks like and whether that authority exists,” Grassley said in an interview.

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“I think there would be some interest within the Legislature for a one-time use only for remedial education obviously the way this year ended,” the House speaker added. “I think there would be interest in the Legislature on that and so I look at it more from the standpoint of that’s probably a policy that needs to be discussed and what that may look like.”

Whitver said he was aware that the governor mentioned the waiver during her April 17 briefing at the state’s emergency operations center in Johnston, but he said “those are the types of conversations that we’ll have with the governor and the House as we reconvene, as we come back to try to determine how long the emergency needs to last and when the Legislature starts to act again on making these decisions.”

In 2015, the Iowa Legislature and former Gov. Terry Branstad resolved a feud between Iowa’s tourist industry and education officials over when classes should begin. Branstad ended a hodgepodge of school start dates by signing legislation that says classes at Iowa’s K-12 public schools may start no sooner than Aug. 23 — the latest date on which the 11-day Iowa State Fair ends. Before that, only 14 out of 338 districts had started after Aug. 23 in the 2014-15 school year under a waiver that was eliminated in the new law.

Branstad — who had ordered the state Education Department to strictly enforce the old law that said schools must start no earlier than the week that includes Sept. 1 — hailed the Aug. 23 date as a compromise between schools that wanted control over their calendars and tourism interests that wanted a start closer to or after Labor Day.

Tourist officials said early school start dates costs the hospitality industry millions of dollars when families stop attending events and depletes a potential workforce of students.

Iowa’s previous school start day law contained a waiver process for schools that wanted to start earlier, and most sought a waiver that state education officials routinely granted.

Current GOP leaders acknowledged there is some concern among legislators worried about setting a precedent that at some point could reopen a controversy that took years to resolve.

“I think what you’re going to see is the Legislature take some form of action on that piece,” Grassley said. “It would probably be too early to speculate what that might be, but I know that there is some interest within the Legislature to make sure that our school districts are providing some level of remedial education.”

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On April 3, Gary Slater, manager and chief executive officer of the Iowa State Fair, posted a note on the organization’s website that acknowledged the “unprecedented and unpredictable times” while indicating preparations continue to move forward for the 2020 Iowa State Fair.

“We are working hard to make it the best one yet and believe in these uncertain times, people will need the tradition and family friendly entertainment options available at the fair,” Slater noted.

“Although, we may implement some changes related to COVID-19 protocols, we are looking forward to the Fair, Aug. 13-23, 2020,” he added.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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