Governor Reynolds orders school districts to resume in-person education
This past Friday, Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered Iowa’s public school districts and accredited private schools to “take all efforts” to resume face-to-face education when the new school year begins, frustratrating the state’s largest teachers union and upending plans schools already had for the upcoming school year.
“The expectation is, especially with core subjects, that over 50 percent of those subjects be offered in the school building,” Reynolds said during her news conference.
According to the governor’s proclamation, school districts that wish to move to remote learning, due to public health conditions in their communities, must first get approval from the Iowa Department of Education, which will consult with the Iowa Department of Public Health.
The proclamation allows for remote learning if parents select it from among other options; if, in consultation with state and local public health officials, a school determines individual students or classrooms must move online; or if schools choose to have online instruction in lieu of a snow day.
Reynolds is worried students will lack opportunities to socialize, develop social and emotional skills, eat healthy meals, and lose access to other supports, if schools do not reopen.
“Students learn best when they’re in school,” she said. “For all of the wonders of online and distanced learning—and it does play a role—it’s not a replacement for in-person classes. We also can’t forget the critical role that our schools play in addressing inequities for our most vulnerable student populations.”
Iowa school districts have been developing their own plans for the start of the school year at the direction of the Iowa Department of Education. Officials asked districts and private schools to plan for three scenarios: in-person, virtual, or a combination of the two.
When asked why schools were told to plan for online-only instruction, Education Department spokeswoman Heather Doe said it “was necessary so that school districts and accredited non-public schools are prepared should there be an imminent need to move to an online learning model based on virus activity in their schools and communities.”
She said Senate File 2310, which Reynolds signed two days before the Return to Learn plans were due, required schools to specify that “in-person instruction is the presumed method of instruction.”
Schools across Iowa have been closed since the middle of March, due to the pandemic, and most are set to start the school year late next month.
During this closure, the COVID-19 cases have been on the rise. Last Thursday, July 16, Iowa reported a record-setting 839 new cases.
The state has also been identified as one of 18 states with a “red zone” of coronavirus test positivity rates.
The White House Coronavirus Task Force document advised requiring face masks in 47 of Iowa’s 99 counties and limiting gatherings to 10 people in five counties (Webster, Sioux, Franklin, Clarke and Osceola). It also identified 42 counties as a “yellow zone” that should limit gatherings to 25 people. The top 12 counties included: Polk, Johnson, Black Hawk, Scott, Dubuque, Story, Dallas, Woodbury, Pottawattamie, Cerro Gordo, Plymouth and Marshall.
Reynolds said “schools won’t be able to completely prevent transmission of COVID-19” in reopening in-person, but noted precautions can reduce risks.
“I know this is not going to be easy, I know it’s going to require some changes to how things are done in the classroom,” she said. “But given the importance of education to our children and the people of Iowa, we owe it to them to just roll up our sleeves and get our schools back up and running safely and effectively.”
Her proclamation expanded the definition of who will be allowed to substitute teach. Reynolds will allow substitute authorizations to be given to career and tech teachers already in the classroom, paraeducators, and anyone who has an associate degree or has taken two years of college courses. She removed limits on how often and how long substitutes can teach.
Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association teachers union, called the order shortsighted.
“We stand behind those school districts that are making good decisions about the health and safety of the people in their care,” he said in a statement. “Instead of making it even harder to keep our schools safe, the Governor needs to empower school districts, staff and parents to decide what is best for their kids and communities.”