Guest Columnist

Teacher to Reynolds: Restore authority to schools during the pandemic

Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ speech Tuesday scared me. As a teacher, I’ve spent most of this school year in a state of suspended terror. Will I be forced to go back to in-person school? Will I put my family at risk? Who will get COVID-19? Me? My students? My colleagues?

Science is mixed on the contribution that schools make to the pandemic, but the most recent research seems to suggest that secondary students are a significant driver of community transmission.

Thankfully, we’ve managed. Between waivers from the state and hybrid learning, Iowa City Community Schools have set up protocols that are as safe as we can make them. Up to 16 students attend my hybrid classes each class period. I can keep them separated by 3.5 feet because I’ve removed over half of the desks from my room. We all wear masks. Even when the state refuses a waiver that the WHO and the CDC would advise supporting — at least we have these other measures in place.

During her address, Reynolds introduced a young woman named Nicole who feels she is “failing” because of the circumstances we all face in the pandemic. She did not remind Nicole that every family, child, school and state is facing the same crisis. She didn’t point out that it is impossible for every single child on the globe to be “behind.”

Instead, she demanded a bill that will require schools to provide 100 percent in-person instruction. Now.

Not “once teachers and secondary students have been vaccinated.”

Not “when standards set by non-partisan, scientific consensus suggest it is safe.”

Now.

In a school district the size of Iowa City, in high schools the size of City High, and in classrooms like mine (ordinarily seating 25-37 students per period), such a demand is catastrophic. Where will we put these students safely? Even with our current safety protocols, three sports teams and several administrators are currently out of school. In my AP Seminar class Friday, I had nearly equal numbers of students present as out on quarantine.

We have been hobbled by the governor’s refusal to let us make local plans or work with local health departments. She insists that she, Dr. Caitlin Pedati and the State Department of Education, issuing King George edicts from their comfortable chairs in Des Moines, must be in charge. In defiance of Iowa’s long traditions around local control, Gov. Reynolds rules as if one-size-fits-all. Her size.

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Even common sense suggests that the 200 students and 10-plus educators in a small rural high school face significantly different challenges than the 1,500 students and 50-plus educators in a suburban/urban high school. The only things all Iowa schools share are: (1) we are facing the same pandemic, and (2) we are all full of highly trained professional educators who know exactly what it takes to reach our particular communities, our particular families and our particular students.

Yes, Iowa faces an urgent educational crisis in this pandemic. But concentrating power into the hands of Des Moines officials is not the answer. The obvious and most effective mitigation of this crisis is to restore local decision making to each and every school district in the state.

Yes, now.

Because we also face an ongoing challenge in the long-term: our young people leave.

Gov. Terry Branstad addressed this problem with business and educational incentives as well as supporting local control. He knew that a patchwork of Iowa communities solving their own problems with their own distinct approaches meant that young people would come back to our state. They’d be able to find a spot that fit their own sensibilities and settle down.

Reynolds is quilting over that patchwork with the official Seal of the State, killing off the vibrant network of Iowa communities. Pretty soon, there won’t be an array of places for young people to land. And then it won’t be Nicole who failed.

Alina M. Borger-Germann teaches English at City High School in Iowa City.

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