DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Gov. Kim Reynolds on Friday signed into law a bill that requires school districts to provide full-time in-class learning to parents who request it, only hours after Republicans in the Iowa Legislature approved the bill and handed her a victory in her effort to get children back in school even as coronavirus infection rates remain high.
Reynolds signed the bill, which takes effect Feb. 15, despite an outcry from teachers, school nurses and other education professionals who said it is dangerous to require teachers and staff who have not received the coronavirus vaccine to be in classrooms.
Reynolds has focused her message and policy proposals on the demands of some parents who have complained about the inability to send their children to school full time.
“It’s time to put local control into the hands of parents where it belongs so that they can choose what’s best for their children,” she said, adding that student achievement in reading and math has suffered with children learning online instead of in classrooms.
Reynolds has been criticized throughout the pandemic for pushing for in-class learning. She has largely required schools to provide at least 50% of teaching in classrooms and allowed districts to seek temporary reprieves to teach online only when virus activity rises to especially high levels. Recently the state has rejected requests from districts in Des Moines and Iowa City to teach online only.
While state data shows the coronavirus situation has improved since its peak activity in November, Iowa still is reporting a seven-day rolling average of the positivity rate at 29.7%, the third highest in country, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers. On Friday the state reported another 45 deaths increasing the state total to 4,577.
The governor has never required districts to impose mask mandates, and the Iowa State Education Association said up to one-fifth of districts didn’t approve such requirements. The teacher’s union has opposed the measure that would force teachers back into classrooms in districts where distancing is impossible.
“We still believe the people in the best position to decide what is right for a school district are the people in that local school district,” said ISEA President Mike Beranek.
The requirement will likely be the most difficult for large districts in high population areas such as Des Moines, a district with 32,000 students. Superintendent Thomas Ahart has battled with Reynolds throughout the pandemic, insisting the district cannot adequately distance students from one another with the makeup of its buildings and classrooms.
Although the law does not prohibit schools from continuing part in-person and part online, which allow districts to stagger classroom time so that only half of students are present at any one time, districts are likely to go to full-time in-class learning once the bill takes effect on Feb. 15.
Officials from Des Moines and Iowa City districts did not immediately return messages.
Republican Rep. Phil Thompson, of Jefferson, who managed the bill in the House, said classrooms provide quality learning but also social and mental health support and nutritious meals.
“In person learning works best for many of our students, full time and all day,” Thompson said. “It needs to be an option for all families. It ensures that Iowa schools are serving the needs of all students and families.”
Democrats defended the local officials and school boards that have resisted Republican efforts to push staff and students back into classrooms.
“We want kids back in school but we want it done safely. It is not being done safely now and this bill will make it worse,” said Democratic Sen. Rob Hogg. He said at least 18 school staff members have died in Iowa from the virus.
Most of the state’s rural districts with smaller student populations have returned to classrooms and Reynolds points out most districts have successfully managed the virus activity. She blamed a few larger districts for failure to offer parents an in-class full-time option.
Voters in those rural areas typically lean Republican while the urban districts usually have Democratic majorities.
“This bill is nothing more than Gov. Reynolds settling a political score with large urban school districts that disagreed with her,” said Democratic Sen. Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City. “The governor’s cold-hearted return to business as usual approach is dangerous and potentially deadly.”