Staff Columnist

Unpopular Reynolds launches a late summer blockbuster. 'School Wars'

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference, Tuesday, Aug.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Johnston, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Todd Dorman

So Gov. Kim Reynolds resumed her twice-weekly coronavirus pandemic briefings this week. They’re back by unpopular demand.

Since Reynolds ended her televised briefings back in mid-June, after proclaiming that Iowa was “well into the recovery phase,” the coronavirus has continued its uncontrolled spread. New cases are rising at an alarming pace and Iowans continue to die. A recent survey by Harvard, Northeastern, Rutgers and Northwestern universities found just 28 percent of Iowans approve of her handling of the pandemic.

Undeterred, Reynolds is now launching a late summer blockbuster. “School Wars.”

By imperial decree, Iowa schools have been directed to provide at least 50 percent of core instruction through in-person classroom settings. And local school officials are not permitted to deviate from that directive by closing buildings or sending students home unless their county records a 15 percent rate of positive COVID-19 tests over 14 days and 10 percent of students and teachers are absent. Those are high bars, and even then, online learning would be permitted for no more than two weeks.

Leaders in some districts, let’s call them the rebel alliance, have balked at these edicts. They’re especially unhappy with the prospect of being unable to take swift actions without state permission when faced with a COVID-19 outbreak in a building or buildings.

“I want to be very clear. Schools that choose not to return to school for at least 50 percent in person instruction are not defying me, they’re defying the law,” Reynolds said, ominously. “If schools move to primarily remote learning without approval according to the law, those days do not count toward instructional time.”

But nothing in the law, SF 2310 passed in June, specifically mentions a 50 percent in-person threshold. The law is vague, and Reynolds’ interpretation is questionable.

And where did these 15 and 10 percent standards come from, anyway?

“Uh, Dr. Pedati…,” Reynolds said, handing off to State Medical Director and Epidemiologist Caitlin Pedati.

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“So I think I would start by saying as we look across the country and look across the world really, right, finding a balance in how to bring students back to school safely is a goal that everybody is working on,” Pedati said at the start of a more than 300-word odyssey that contained no answer whatsoever.

She recently got a pay raise, apparently by the word.

Many of us want our kids in school, and are willing to try hybrid approaches mixing in-person and online learning. My high school-aged daughter, as of now, is going back to class.

But we can’t simply roll over teachers and staff with real concerns. And if something goes wrong, we want local school leaders to act fast without first seeking state permission. Reynolds’ decision forcing districts to jump through hoops to deal with an outbreak is a reckless overreach. The 15/10 standards are tied to no public health advice, and likely were set high enough to make sure most schools stay open at all cost.

Why did the state have to take this over? Again, we’re a testing ground for Trumpian reopening prescriptions. The active agreement is politics. If Reynolds had listened to public health experts from the beginning instead of embracing the president’s erratic, failed strategies, we’d be sending kids back to fully opened schools.

Instead, we’re back in the briefing room, with a governor socially distant only from reality.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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