With little guidance from national and state officials, many of Iowa’s school districts are themselves determining reopening plans before children enter classrooms this fall.
President Donald Trump and Gov. Kim Reynolds have both said recently that they prioritize opening schools—Iowa classrooms have been closed since mid-March when COVID-19 spread throughout the state. Many of Iowa’s school districts, stretching from the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids metro areas to places like Iowa City and Burlington have decided upon their own mandates to keep students safe.
The plans vary across the state, ranging from not requiring mask-wearing to remote learning options for the whole fall term. Most schools have developed options that include a hybrid of in-class learning and online instruction.
“While the school year will be different than it’s ever been before, it is critical that we prioritize bringing Iowa’s children back to the classroom,” Reynolds said during a Tuesday press conference in Webster City. “But, of course, we [have to] do it in a safe and responsible manner.”
The state is set to work with schools, said Reynolds, confirming districts have enough personal protective equipment and enough workers to reopen. Each school earlier this month was required to present to the Iowa Department of Education a “return to learn plan,” which included options for both in-person and online learning options for the fall.
Trump has also said that schools should be open—surmising that the reasons his Democratic opponents want classrooms to continue to stay closed are political.
“Schools should be opened. There’s kids who want to go to school. You’re losing a lot of lives by keeping things closed,” he said at a recent press conference. “We have to open the schools, we have to get them open, and I think there’s a lot of politics going along, I think they’ll do better if they can keep the schools closed in the election. I don’t think it’s going to help them, frankly.”
Iowa Rep. Molly Donahue, D-Cedar Rapids, an educator, said she is concerned that Reynolds is following the President’s lead and compromising students’ and teachers’ health to maintain a political image.
“She’s saying she wants kids back in school, which is exactly what Trump is saying,” Donahue said. “This has come down to politics and it shouldn’t be political, this is people’s health.”
Reynolds is planning on holding another news conference this week to highlight the plan for Iowa’s return to school.
“My concern is that [Reynolds] takes local control when she feels like it. So she told all the counties, you’re going to make [reopening] decisions. Then, when a couple of counties made the decisions to make it masks required, she just told them no,” Donahue said. “So she’s letting the schools make the decisions, but if it’s not the decision she wants is she going to come back and say, ‘too bad, you’re going to have to do it my way?’”
Des Moines Metro
The Des Moines Public School system is set to implement a mostly hybrid plan which includes a combination of remote learning and in-person instruction.
An all-virtual learning option is also available for parents to choose from for the fall term, which runs through Oct. 28. But a mixed option of remote instruction and in-person learning is expected for most students.
K-8 students are slated to adhere to a schedule that has students at school two days a week and home three days. High school students in each grade level will physically attend classes one day a week and learn from home the remaining four.
In West Des Moines, students and parents have the option to continue online learning by enrolling in a plan currently under consideration or returning to class in-person this fall, according to a Monday night board of education meeting.
“This option gives parents the opportunity to select which learning model works best for their family,” said school administrators’ recommendation in board documents released Friday.
About 48% of district parents said they were comfortable sending their children back to school. About 33% of parents preferred alternating school days and 18% said they wanted their children to take online classes at least for the fall semester, according to a district survey.
If they return to school in the fall, students will be required to wear face coverings in places like classrooms, hallways and buses if social distancing cannot be implemented. School employees will be required to wear face shields under the same circumstances, as well as cloth coverings like masks.
Fifty-four percent of those who responded to a Cedar Rapids Community School District survey said they are comfortable sending their students back to school this fall during the ongoing pandemic, according to data released Monday, while 11% said they are not comfortable with that idea. Thirty-six percent said they were unsure.
Cedar Rapids’ return-to-learn plan said all staff and students in school buildings and on buses will be required to wear facial coverings if students do return to in-person learning.
The younger students—grades pre-school through second grade—will be required to wear face shields instead of masks because their learning requires more blended sounds.
Cedar Rapids Community School District Superintendent Noreen Bush said during a Monday virtual presentation that a mask or shield will be provided to all students by the district, depending on age and need. Staff members will also be issued a mask and shield. A student-to-teacher ratio will also go in effect to enforce social distancing.
“I personally will be wearing both, I already purchased both. But the district’s going to purchase it for everybody,” said Rep. Donahue, who teaches middle school in the district.
Nearby Marion’s school board said that if they go back to in-person classes this fall, face masks are only recommended, not required, said Donahue.
A hybrid schedule with likely mask-wearing was also approved Monday by the Burlington School Board in Southeast Iowa.
“With our student population, we do run the risk of possibly having some children becoming ill and passing away,” Superintendent Pat Coen cautioned the board. “We have a higher probability of having staff becoming sick and possibly passing away.”
The model will likely consist of alternating days where half of the students attend school with a teacher one day and the other half the next day, with remote instruction available on days off.
In nearby Fort Madison, the school board voted to implement a similar hybrid model, where half the students will learn in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays and the second half of students will come into the classroom Thursday and Friday with remote learning on off days. Wednesday and weekends will be used for deep cleaning days.
According to a release, masks will be required for all teachers and staff working with students, and parents are encouraged to check their children’s temperatures and symptoms daily.
Iowa City Community School District’s board on Tuesday voted to begin the entire school year remotely to avoid spreading COVID-19.
They’ll start a new online learning program containing required online instruction.
“After close communication and collaboration with Johnson County Public Health…and considering input of parents and community members, our administrative recommendation is we begin the 2020-21 school year in an off-site learning environment,” Interim Superintendent Matt Degner said to the board Tuesday night.
Some board members expressed irritation with Governor Reynolds’ lack of statewide public health mandates.
by Isabella Murray
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