June 20, 2021

‘A formidable task’

Gov. Reynolds maintains decision for state control of local districts “Return to Learn” plans

DES MOINES – With Iowa schools set to reopen in August, Governor Kim Reynolds held a public conference Thursday regarding the statewide requirements for districts currently finalizing their return to learn plans Thursday evening. She insisted schools will resume classes in August, saying districts can provide online learning only if coronavirus cases are surging in their communities.

“Make no mistake, this has been a formidable task that has truly brought each out the best in Iowa resolve, adaptability and innovation,” said Reynolds.

On July 17, Reynolds required at least half of classes to be held in person and on Thursday she updated that guidance to say the state will decide when K-12 schools can send students home based on community virus spread and student illnesses.

“This plan starts with a foundation of in-person learning in alignment with Iowa statue requiring that 50% of instruction time happens in the classroom and prioritizes core subjects,” said Reynolds. “Schools have flexibility to meet that and other options if public health circumstances occur, making it an unobtainable goal for them.”

Reynolds said COVID-19 poses a low risk to school-aged children based on low transmission in the community.

“Children are not driving the pandemic and transmission from students to students and teachers have been low,” Reynolds said. “With proper tools and resources, we can reopen safely protecting students, teachers, staff and families.”

Reynolds’ rules for school makes exceptions for parents who can choose to keep a child at home for remote learning, and districts must make accommodations for any student to learn remotely if they or a person they live with has a health condition that would increase their risk of COVID-19.

Although some districts said they would seek waivers to the state mandates, guidelines outlined by Reynolds would allow exceptions only if counties have positivity rates of 15% to 20% over a two week period and at least 10% of students absent. If granted, such waivers for remote-only learning would expire after 14 days. If community transmission is worse than a 20% positivity rate over a two-week period, districts also could seek to send students home for virtual learning.

“After six months of the pandemic, there is mounting research that shows that children are less likely to transmit and contract COVID-19,” said Reynolds. “According to the CDC, among nearly 120,000 cases in the U.S. between Feb.12 and April 2, only about 2,500, or 1.7%, were in children.”

Reynolds said that schools play an important part in community infrastructure by providing a safe environment for education, employee teachers and staff while enabling parents to work.

“We need to keep our next generation learning, growing and preparing for a bright future, and online learning is an essential component of that,” said Reynolds. “But it can’t make up for the critical role our schools play in the development of social and emotional skills that our children rely on.”

Reynolds said that the achievement gap of underprivileged students would widen with a shift towards online education, in addition to these students being unable to access traditional resources offered by districts such as food programs and mental health services.

“Consider the negative public health consequences of children not being back in school,” said Reynolds.

On Wednesday, members of the state teachers union called on Reynolds to rescind her proclamation and establish a rule that “places the health and safety of our students, educators school employees and communities ahead of politics.” Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek said more than 36,000 people have signed a petition that will be mailed to Reynolds asking for local decision control.

Reynolds continues to refuse to impose a mask mandate at schools in Iowa, and the Department of Education has recommended against districts requiring them in schools. Local officials in some cities and counties have moved to enact their own despite Reynolds’ saying they cannot enforce it without her authority.

She said that some states that imposed mask requirements after virus surges have not seen cases fall.

“It’s just there’s not a silver bullet. There’s not a single answer,” she said.