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Iowa orders largest district to reopen schools despite COVID

Associated Press

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FILE - Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference at the State Emergency Operations Center, Thursday, April 16, 2020, in Johnston, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, pool)

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Iowa’s largest school district cannot begin the year with fully remote learning and must offer at least 50% in-person instruction despite a worsening coronavirus pandemic, the state said Friday.

Des Moines Public Schools, which has 32,000 students and 5,000 employees, blasted the decision by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ administration to deny its request for a waiver to allow for 100% online learning.

The district announced that it would file a lawsuit to challenge the state’s order to reopen schools, a prospect that it said was simply unsafe because of the coronavirus threat.

“Unfortunately, the governor and her agencies have decided to ignore the local decision-making authority set out in the law to try and force their will on school districts to do things we all know are simply not safe at this time,” said Kyrstin Delagardelle, the chair of the school board.

Superintendent Thomas Ahart said the district’s virtual learning plan was “not an act of political defiance” but rather a science-based approach to resuming instruction during a pandemic. The district said that it would continue planning for a virtual start to the school year next month, and allow sports and activities to continue with safety precautions.

The Iowa Department of Education denied the district’s waiver request on Thursday. The agency said the denial would still allow parents to choose 100% virtual learning for students, and the district could offer a hybrid approach in which students get 50% in-person learning and the rest online.

The governor is disappointed that the district plans to sue “rather than to work cooperatively to develop a return to learn plan that complies with the law and meets the educational and health needs of Iowa’s children,” said her spokesman, Pat Garrett.

Reynolds has said that school districts must provide at least 50% in-person instruction or administrators, educators and students will face consequences, including being forced to make up extra hours of instructional time later.

She said schools can seek a waiver to move to remote learning for two weeks at a time if the county 14-day positivity rate hits 15% — a threshold three times higher than what is recommended by many public health experts.

The Department of Education told the Des Moines district in its waiver denial that Polk County’s 8% positivity rate was below the governor’s threshold and that the district failed to identify “any other basis” for moving to remote-only learning.

The counties of Plymouth and Henry were the only out of Iowa’s 99 counties that were above the 15% threshold as of Friday afternoon. Doe said the department of education has not granted any waivers for districts to begin online.

Dozens of other Iowa counties are currently above the 5% positivity rate that the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest may be safe for reopening schools.

The lawsuit from the Des Moines district will be the second case that will argue the governor is overstepping her authority, creating more uncertainty for tens of thousands of students, parents and educators.

The Iowa State Education Association and the Iowa City Community School District filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to block enforcement of the governor’s mandate.

A Sept. 3 hearing has been scheduled on their request for a temporary injunction. If granted, it would mean school districts would have their own authority to decide whether to move to 100% remote learning and not face retaliation from the state if they do.

Reynolds said Thursday that the majority of school districts will begin in-person instruction by next week. Many others have delayed their start dates until September either because of the coronavirus or the derecho storm that damaged many schools last week.

The union and the district argue that the governor is misinterpreting state law, and that local school boards have broad powers to make their own decisions about when in-person learning will be safe.

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