Iowa Legislature to consider 'parental choice' in requiring schools in-person learning

Hand sanitizer stations are set up in each room at Central City's elementary school on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. For the
Hand sanitizer stations are set up in each room at Central City's elementary school on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. For the Central City community, the schoolyear will begin with a synchronous learning environment, in which students are assigned to a homeroom and "attend" classes via Google Classroom. In this model, students can choose between in-person or at-home learning, both via computer. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Gov. Kim Reynolds is pushing for legislation requiring all school districts to offer a 100 percent in-person learning option.

At a news conference last month, Reynolds indicated schools could be required to offer face-to-face instruction.

The governor cited studies showing the virus does not spread as rapidly among school-aged children as it does among adults, and she expressed concern that students who are learning remotely could fall behind.

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said whatever the Legislature decides this year needs to revolve around parental choice.

“We have a lot of school districts that not only aren’t in-person, which that’s one thing, but they don’t even take the advice of the parents of the school,” he said. “And I feel like the students and the parents have been lost in this entire conversation.

“We have higher than ever failing grades. We have school districts, in my opinion, that have really made no attempt to return to learn in-person.”

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said this is another example of Reynolds putting politics before science.


“I understand everybody wants kids back in school. ... If you don’t have enough staff to keep the school building open, it doesn’t make sense to put the kids in charge.

“You have to have teachers, secretaries, food servers, and you can’t do that if they’re all sick. And by the way, the reason they’re all sick is because the governor took until November to put a mask mandate in place and neglected to stand up for a real contact tracing program.”

Safety the issue

Melissa Peterson, a lobbyist for the Iowa State Education Association, the teachers union, said Reynolds’ push for in-person learning is a “significant change” from Senate File 2310, passed last year, which Reynolds interpreted as a requirement that all schools offer 50 percent in-person instruction.

Peterson said educators, more than anyone, want to be in the classroom face-to-face with students — safely.

“The devil’s going to be in the details,” Peterson said. “We’ll be interested to see the conditions under which she would require 100 percent in-person instruction.”

More than 75 percent of Iowa schools are in a form of in-person instruction, Peterson said, making classes as safe as possible by improving air circulation, increasing cleaning protocols and requiring face coverings.

If 100 percent in-person instruction is mandated, there needs to be room for schools to move to virtual learning if the county sees an increase in coronavirus transmission and positivity rates, Peterson said.

If districts are still able to offer a continuous online learning option to students, that further complicates staffing, Peterson said.

Iowa City hybrid

Matt Degner, interim superintendent for the Iowa City Community School District, said the pandemic conditions have not changed to where the district feel comfortable with 100 percent in-person instruction.

Iowa City schools began the school year with two weeks of virtual learning after receiving a waiver from the state because of skyrocketing rates of COVID-19 in Johnson County.

Since then, the district has shifted between hybrid learning — some in-person, some online — and temporary virtual instruction only.

Currently, 40 percent of Iowa City students are in continuous online learning, and 60 percent of students are enrolled in hybrid learning, split between A and B days.

“We’ve able to provide a lot of additional social distancing in the hybrid model,” Degner said. “We’re working with a substantially reduced number of students.

“Even if we transitioned to 100 percent in-person learning, we had a significant number of staff out (in November) to the point where we couldn’t deliver on our programs,” Degner said. “Even if students come back, we may not have the appropriate number of staff to do it.”

Until educators start receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, Degner said he is not comfortable bringing everyone back into the classroom.

Des Moines denial

David Wilkerson, lobbyist for School Administrators of Iowa, said a mandate of 100 percent in-person learning would present challenges.


“Schools were struggling before the pandemic to find substitute teachers, bus drivers, food service workers, etc. The pandemic has compounded that, and I have heard numerous stories of districts’ inability to meet staffing needs due to the pandemic,” he said in an email.

In November, the state approved requests for 90 school districts or buildings — including the Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, College Community, Linn-Mar, Central City and Clear Creek Amana districts — to go to online learning as the number of virus cases escalated.

Districts cited a shortage of staffers — who either had tested positive for COVID-19 or were in quarantine due to exposure — as the main reason for moving to virtual learning. Student absenteeism also surged at many schools.

Eleven districts were approved for online learning during December. The Des Moines school district’s request on Dec. 28 was the first waiver to be rejected since August.

Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo rejected the request Dec. 30.

She noted in a letter that the Polk County positivity rate was 11.5 percent, well below the state guideline of 15 percent.

She also concluded that although the district’s 15 percent absentee rate among students is above the state’s guidance of 10 percent, “the Department gives this reported absenteeism less weight because it is from more than six weeks ago, when your students were last participating in in-person instruction.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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