DES MOINES, Iowa — When the Iowa City Community School District decided in mid-July to start the academic year fully online, it seemed like the only logical choice to administrators. The county was averaging 26 new confirmed coronavirus cases a day, some days as high as 70, and no one knew what impact the return of University of Iowa students would have on the eastern Iowa town.
But three days after the school board vote, Gov. Kim Reynolds interrupted their plans.
Reynolds, a Republican, signed a proclamation on July 17 requiring schools to teach at least half of all classes in-person, unless the district receives a waiver from the state. Waivers would only be approved if a county’s coronavirus positivity rate surpassed 15 percent. Last week, the state denied Iowa City’s waiver request, saying the county’s positivity rate was too low — 6.26 percent — to warrant remote instruction. Reynolds warned this month that students may not receive credit if their schools move online without state permission because it would violate a law enacted in June.
“The decision we made was in the interest of trying to put health and safety above all else,” said Shawn Eyestone, the Iowa City school board president, “and now we’re in the position where we don't even get to do that. So we’re just on edge — the whole community is on edge.”
Decisions on how to start the new school year in Iowa have come down to the wire in many cities and towns across the state, following new rules Reynolds laid out in recent weeks amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While states nationwide are grappling with whether to reopen schools, the impassioned debate in Iowa has resulted in car protests, resignations by longtime teachers and staff members, and some districts openly flouting Reynolds’ orders.
“I believe we should all do everything we can to get our kids back in school in a safe and responsible manner,” Reynolds said Tuesday at a news conference. “We are doing everything we can, even providing flexibility through the proclamation, to help them comply and do the right thing in a safe and responsible manner,” she added.
Many educators have expressed concern that Iowa, which has the highest per capita rate of coronavirus infections in the Midwest and no statewide mask mandate, hasn’t made enough progress controlling COVID-19 to return students to the classrooms.
“We don't want to pick a fight, but we do want to do what’s best for family and staff,” Eyestone said.
Over the next week, the school boards for Iowa City and the state’s largest district, in Des Moines, will both consider fall semester plans that would defy the state’s reopening rules by starting the academic year entirely online. “There is consensus that we need to do everything we can to limit and reduce in-person learning to start the year,” said Phil Roeder, Des Moines Public Schools spokesman.
The board for the Urbandale Community School District, in a Des Moines suburb, voted unanimously on Aug. 3 to keep classes entirely online at one year-round elementary school for at least two more weeks. The next day, Reynolds said at a news conference that children may not receive credit if their districts don’t follow state rules on in-person learning, and administrators could lose their licenses.
The Urbandale district decided Monday to implement a hybrid model, splitting students into two groups and having them switch days they attend class on campus.
State guidelines released in late July say that schools can only suspend in-person classes if the 14-day average infection rate among those who are tested tops 15 percent in their county, and absenteeism among students reaches 10 percent. The Iowa Department of Public Health came up with those thresholds, but has declined to state how it arrived at them. The U.S. Surgeon General has recommended that a community get its positivity rate below 10 percent before resuming in-person teaching. Epidemiologists have suggested the rate should be 5 percent or lower.
However, even if a school district’s county hits that threshold, the state may still deny a request to go fully remote.
Reynolds has argued there’d be no need to shut down schools if a coronavirus outbreak in a county was largely contained to a nursing home or prison, and that context would be determined through contact tracing. She’s also said that parents can enroll their children in online education, even though schools can’t make it the default choice.
The Waukee Community School District, west of Des Moines, will bring most students back for in-person classes. However, the district also said it will not request permission from the state if the school board decides classes must be moved online due to the spread of the coronavirus.
Brad Buck, Waukee’s superintendent and a former head of the Iowa Department of Education, said they could not find any expert or other state using a threshold of 15 percent positivity rate. The district will instead rely on a 10 percent positive threshold.
Seven counties currently have positivity rates of at least 15 percent, according to a state government dashboard. Another 19 counties have rates from 10 to 14 percent. Iowa’s COVID-19 community testing effort is limited among the general public to those displaying symptoms or who have known exposure to the virus.
Many bars, restaurants and gyms remain open in Iowa. It’s not uncommon for people to grocery shop without a facial covering, or for employees at gas stations not to wear one. Reynolds has forbidden cities and counties from imposing their own mask mandates, though a handful have done so anyway.
“Some people are going about like nothing is happening,” said Andrea Leigh Hileman, an elementary school music teacher in Waterloo, Iowa, “and that is concerning — what are they teaching their children?”
Hileman, who will return to her school to teach music in person to hundreds of children, worries about replicating cases like the choir in Washington state where 45 of 60 singers contracted COVID-19 following a March practice.
“I really enjoy my job — it’s just not safe right now,” she said.
At a news conference last week, Reynolds blamed these fears on “scare tactics” from the media. But some teachers are already quitting rather than stepping into full classrooms.
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Suzanne Yoder, 49, resigned from her job as a fourth grade teacher for the Mid-Prairie Community School District in eastern Iowa after it decided to bring everyone back for in-person classes.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Yoder, a cancer survivor who has asthma. “It was something I never figured I’d do. I anticipated retiring, not resigning.”
Rhiannon Fogelman, 36, quit her job teaching preschool in Fort Dodge, Iowa, because she feared infecting her daughter, who has an immune disorder and will be schooled online this year.
“I feel selfish for even leaving,” she said, “but I had to do what’s best for my family.”