CORONAVIRUS

Gov. Kim Reynolds warns schools not to defy law

Districts that do not obey would have to make up the time

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference Tuesday in John
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference Tuesday in Johnston. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

JOHNSTON — Gov. Kim Reynolds warned Tuesday that school districts defying her order to provide at least 50 percent in-person instruction for core subjects when classes resume would not meet state requirements for instructional time and would have to make up the time for students to receive credit.

Speaking to reporters, the governor noted most of Iowa’s school districts are planning to resume classes in compliance with a directive she said was based on a state law passed unanimously in the last session.

The five or so that are looking to provide at least initial instruction via online only, or with a hybrid that falls short of the in-person threshold, will be in violation of state law if they defy last week’s proclamation.

“The law is the law and we expect our school districts to operate within the law,” said Reynolds, who indicated her administration is trying to balance safety with the needs of students but is being thwarted by media “scare tactics” that are escalating the anxiety of students, parents and teachers.

Those few districts not intending to comply, Reynolds said, are “defying the law” established by the Legislature in Senate File 2310 that she signed earlier this year providing for in-person classes as the preferred method of instruction.

“It is the expectation of the law and if they fail to comply or follow the law, then the days when they’re not in compliance will not count toward the instructional time and so it will have to be made up,” she said.

“School administrators may also be subject to licensure discipline as well and that is within the law,” the governor said, later adding that “there are consequences like everything else to not following the law.”

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SF 2310 states that schools submitting return-to-learn plans for this fall “must contain provisions for in-person instruction and provide that in-person instruction is the presumed method of instruction.”

Reynolds said Tuesday the statute is binding and “supersedes the local control during the pandemic.”

She said her proclamation permits remote learning when parents select online-only learning as the best option for their family. She noted it also provides an option if an outbreak requires schools to change.

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 a 14-day average shows at least 15 percent of county residents screened for the coronavirus tested 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 again get state officials’ permission for subsequent weeks.

Not everyone agreed with the Republican governor’s interpretation of the new state law.

Democratic Sen. Herman Quirmbach of Ames, ranking member of the Senate Education Committee, accused the governor of “continuing to hide behind” SF 2310 “as she puts students and teachers at risk by forcing them back into classrooms.”

Quirmbach said the law contains “vague language that only sets a general priority for in-person education” and that the governor’s 50 percent rule is her own interpretation.

Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, said the governor has thrown up “last-minute” roadblocks for schools by misinterpreting the intent of the law in a way that “has made a difficult situation worse by failing to recognize that her one-size-fits-all approach falls well short of what’s needed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and keep students, teachers, and school staff safe.”

Steckman said House Democrats trust local leaders and educators to determine what is best for their communities.

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Reynolds told the news conference at Iowa PBS in Johnston she believed all Iowans want what’s best for Iowa students and she said “what’s best for kids is for them to be in school and in the classroom.”

“Going back to school will be different and we will need to remain flexible,” she noted.

“By far the vast majority of Iowa schools already have plans in place that meet the requirement for at least 50 percent in-person instruction,” the governor added. “These plans are creative, innovative and adaptable and value the health and well-being of the whole student. There are only a few schools requesting waivers to return by remote learning and we are actively working with them.”

She noted that some of the objecting schools managed to conduct summer sports programs without problems.

Reynolds said her team of public health officials and other experts had made significant progress in their ability to target, contain and manage virus activity in Iowa — including tracking trends in real time.

“We have the tools that we need to protect the health of our state and safely reopen our economy and our schools. We all know that COVID-19 is a serious situation and we’re appropriately managing it as such, but the headlines would have you believe otherwise,” she noted.

“As the governor, I have the responsibility to not react to partially informed headlines or news stories but to make decisions based on data and the Department of Public Health experts and the epidemiologist team that’s in the best interest of the lives and livelihoods of Iowans,” she added.

Reynolds said the coronavirus outbreak will be a concern until a vaccine is available to combat it and until then “come hell or high water we’re going to get through this.”

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At the same time, the governor noted that the COVID-19 numbers involving positive cases, hospitalizations and recovery rates all have improved significantly since the pandemic forced school and business closures in April and May.

“It would be naïve for us to think that at no point we’re not going to see positive cases in school districts,” she said. But she called upon the news media to report COVID-19 numbers in context so as not to exacerbate anxiety — especially among children.

“What we’re doing to these kids is unconscionable — the fear that we’re instilling in them,” Reynolds said. “And so I think we all have a responsibility to do better, including me.”

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

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