Student absenteeism, a metric Gov. Kim Reynolds previously presented as a necessary requirement for Iowa school districts to request permission to move to learning online amid the pandemic, is actually just a guideline.
At a Thursday morning press conference, Reynolds backtracked on earlier statements that a county’s 14-day coronavirus positivity rate must be more than 15%, and absenteeism at 10% or higher, before districts can apply for online waivers.
Following reports this week that the Iowa Department of Education changed its K-12 absentee standards, Reynolds noted today that the 10% absenteeism rate was a suggestion, not a requirement. Department guidelines now say students who are quarantined at home due to coronavirus exposure — though not ill or confirmed positive — are not considered absent.
“Those are guidelines … we’re trying to provide guidelines. Our goal, I think, is to get everybody back in school to make sure that we’re doing everything safely and responsibly,” Reynolds said. “There are some times when school districts apply for a waiver to go online if they think there’s significant virus activity within their community, or they’ve seen a significant uptick.”
On Aug. 14, DOE said absenteeism rates should include all students who are absent for COVID-related reasons, including illness, quarantine and isolation. Then, during a Sept. 3 webinar, the standards were changed to say only those sick from COVID are considered absent.
Experts have noted that the change will make any switch to virtual learning potentially more challenging. The governor said it wouldn’t “necessarily affect their qualifying.”
“The 10% absenteeism is another criteria that we look at, but it’s not the only one,” Reynolds said when asked about the shift. “It’s the absentee tracker that was always to measure those who are ill and not healthy. And when you’re quarantined, it’s because you’ve been exposed to someone who’s tested positive, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re ill or not healthy. And now, with the online learning component, students are still able to continue learning online.”
Dr. Ann Lebo, director of the state’s education department, then got up to say the department was working on a statement about the change in absentee standards. Like Reynolds, Lebo noted that the DOE does not want to count students who are isolating but are “not technically absent because they’re still learning.”
The state has so far approved three districts who’ve applied for waivers to temporarily move to remote learning, all of which were approved before school began and didn’t take into account absentee rates.
“It’s important to note that all of the waivers we’ve approved so far were prior to school even starting, so absenteeism wasn’t a factor,” Lebo said. “It doesn’t prohibit your ability to apply.”
By Isabella Murray
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