On June 25, the Iowa Department of Education (DOE) announced its guidelines for reopening schools effective July 1st. The state will impose no requirements related to COVID-19 — no health checks, no masks, no social distancing. Twenty-four hours later, the Iowa DOE responded to swift and harsh criticism and backed down saying it will release additional information in the near future. The Iowa DOE’s initial decision was wrong on three levels. First, it abdicated the state’s responsibility to the people. Second, by requiring the state’s 367 school districts to submit their own guidelines by July 3 without greater assistance from the state would have guaranteed a chaotic patchwork of rules that would have aggravated school officials, inter-district cooperative efforts, vendors, and families. Third, the announcement on June 25, even if rescinded, further weakened public education and opened the door for an exodus to home schooling.
Public education in Iowa is a locally administered state function. It is not a local function with state ties. Education is constitutionally prescribed in Article IX as a duty of the state. The state sets the rules for graduation, compulsory attendance, teacher certification, and the entire kit and caboodle called public education. The Iowa DOE has been called out for failing to do the right thing. It must lead, use its power, and share its authority to come to the best decisions for the common good.
The Iowa Department of Education administers the state’s K-12 education and over generations has created one of the best public school systems in the nation with strong academic standards and a consistently good graduation rate. Compared to the 367 school districts across the state, the DOE has a longer reach to expertise outside of Iowa, a deeper bench of in-house talent, and greater access to Iowa’s Department of Health, Department of Public Safety, and the web of public and private expertise. Certainly, local districts are focused on reopening schools safely, but this is a time when the state should carry the water for the districts.
Leaving safety guidelines for reopening schools in the hands of the 367 districts may appear a nod to local control, but in a pandemic, it is an abandonment of responsibility. Certainly, there are differences in the number of COVID-19 cases and the ease of transmission between urban and rural areas across Iowa. The DOE should tap into the state epidemiologist, the university brain trusts, and the state education organizations and provide guidance before July 3 when all districts must submit their reopening plans to Des Moines. Local voice is important in public education, but a pandemic calls for clear and consistent guidelines, leadership, and intelligent and clear adjustments as conditions demand.
Finally, a failure to provide clear and trustworthy guidance is an invitation for parents not to send their children back to school this fall. A recent USA Today poll indicated that 30% of families across the country are strongly committed to home schooling this fall. If that percentage applies to Iowa, 150,000 kids won’t be going back when school reopen from Sioux City to Davenport and all places in between. Parents are serious about this commitment to home schooling. Many families have an elderly member in the home or someone with a health condition that makes them vulnerable to the ravages of a novel virus. Other families found during the school closures that they enjoyed having the kids school at home and learned one of education’s dirty little secrets — you can get a day’s worth of schoolwork accomplished in a quality fashion in just a couple of hours.
Worst of all, however, is the loss of faith among thousands of parents in government, its institutions like public education, and its ability to maintain order among an increasingly fractious population. The absence of leadership by the Iowa DOE plays directly into their hands. The lack of clear guidance on how best to reopen schools may have just confirmed the decision of tens of thousands of Iowa families who have committed to home school this fall and pushed those on the fence into the home school category.
The nation and the world are victims of America’s lack of a cogent plan in response to COVID-19. Our nation is awash in the spread of the disease and in denial of the inevitable destruction it will wreak on our families and friends, our health systems, our economy, our ability to govern, and our public schools. America’s tolerance of pathological individualism such as the refusal to wear masks because it is seen as a government overreach or the lack of self-control to avoid large social gatherings allows for blow after blow to the common good. With its retreat from responsibility, the Iowa DOE just added to the chaos and uncertainty which characterizes this moment in history and opens the door for thousands to leave public education. It has, however, responded to the outcry from school districts for leadership. Let’s see what it does in the near future and if other states pay attention.
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John McLaughlin of Sioux Falls is a school founder and former tenured professor of educational administration. His latest book is “How Autism Is Reshaping Special Education: The Unbundling of IDEA.”