JOHNSTON — Gov. Kim Reynolds said Thursday efforts are proceeding for Iowa schools to resume primarily with in-person learning, but she acknowledged instruction may have to be temporarily moved online due to changing COVID-19 realities.
Speaking to reporters, the governor said most school districts are planning to welcome students back to classrooms later this month with social distancing and other public health measures in place.
Some districts are incorporating online instruction for parents who request it along with other options that still meet the requirement that at least 50 percent of student instruction be in-person, as mandated by state law.
“I believe that we can do this safely and responsibly,” Reynolds said in addressing the “return-to-learn” scenarios.
She noted many schools already are conducting football practices successfully and that state officials are working to provide personal protective equipment — masks, gloves and face shields — to school officials as early as next week.
“We’re doing everything we can to help schools comply with the state law,” the governor said.
Ann Lebo, director of the state Department of Education, said some districts are experimenting with new models that include designing creative classroom layouts, installing plexiglass dividers, having students stay in their homerooms while school staff rotate, and using federal grants to pay for Wi-Fi hotspots, internet services or electronic devices for eligible families.
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“Schools are doing extraordinary work to open safely, and the new normal calls for creating as much opportunity for students to succeed while mitigating the risk of COVID-19,” Lebo said.
Prepare for remote
Reynolds — who warned earlier this week that school districts seeking to defy in-person instruction guidelines could face penalties — said only a few counties currently exceed the in-person COVID-19 threshold for positive cases.
But she acknowledged there could be situations where schools have to switch temporarily to online instruction due to spikes in coronavirus cases, and they have to prepare for that possibility.
“We need to be ready to do that,” the governor said. “But I believe that we should all do everything that we can to get our kids back into school in the most safe and responsible manner.”
Under state guidelines, school districts may request a temporary waiver to send students home for 14 days and move all instruction online if 10 percent of students are absent and at least 15 percent of county residents screened for the coronavirus test positive.
School districts given permission to conduct all classes online due to high COVID-19 case counts may do so for 14 days but then would have to get state permission for any subsequent weeks.
Lebo said the guidelines translate into at least 2.5 days of in-person instruction per week.
The Department of Education, she said, has provided options to school districts wanting to provide “hybrid” forms of instruction that are a mix of in-person and remote learning.
“When you’re looking at classroom sizes, the number of kids, how they’re interacting with students and their teachers, there’s opportunity there,” Lebo said. “So I think it depends on the needs of the community, the interest of the families and how the school leaders are able to look at options to make available opportunities for their kids.”
In responding to questions from reporters, Reynolds indicated teachers and school staffers — as essential workers under federal health guidelines — should be allowed to work if they have been around someone who tested positive for the virus but are not showing symptoms themselves.
Dr. Caitlin Pedati, medical director and state epidemiologist with the Iowa Department of Public Health, said teachers exposed to COVID-19 would be allowed to work as long as they aren’t showing any symptoms and there is a workforce shortage.
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“We can do things to safely allow some of those critical workers to return to roles,” Pedati said. “But it includes things like monitoring of symptoms and temperature twice a day, using a face mask.”
However, students who have been exposed to COVID-19, with or without symptoms, will be asked to quarantine for 14 days.
On a separate topic, Reynolds said she continues to encourage Iowans to wear masks when they interact with others and are unable to social distance.
She said she has no problems with businesses, schools or local governments that require masks within their buildings.
But, she reiterated, “I just don’t believe that a one-size-fits-all from a government mandate is the right direction.”
Also, during a public health emergency, she doesn’t believe “local governments have the authority to supersede what has been put in place at the statewide level by the governor.”
Reynolds said the goal is to get individuals to take personal steps to help slow the spread, to help contain and mitigate the virus activity, and she believes they are doing that voluntarily with the possible exception of some younger Iowans in the 18 to 40 age range.
“The other day we upped the enforcement on the guidelines that we have in place for bars and social gatherings,” the governor said. “If we need to continue to do more, like maybe limit the numbers for social gatherings based on where we’re seeing some of the increased activity, based on the population who is being most impacted so we don’t see that maybe start to spread out and impact community numbers.
“The team is watching that very closely, too. I think those are the actions that we can take that will be more purposeful in helping us really manage and maintain the virus activity across the state of Iowa.”
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