DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds appears to be prepared to push schools to return students to classrooms this month, reinforcing her plans to prioritize in-person learning even when a local school board believes it’s too risky.
In November, the state approved requests for 90 school districts or buildings to go to online learning as virus cases escalated, causing many schools to run short of staff members as they tested positive or had to quarantine due to exposure. Student absenteeism also surged at many schools.
Eleven districts had been approved during December, but the Des Moines school district’s request on Dec. 28 was the first to be rejected since August.
Virus conditions deteriorated in Iowa in November with a spike in hospitalizations and deaths. Trends appeared to improve in early December, although the positivity rate in Iowa has started to tick back up again in recent weeks.
Des Moines Superintendent Tom Ahart asked in a letter for grades 2 through 12 to go online this week, returning to its hybrid model of learning on Jan. 11. The hybrid format meets state requirements of at least half of the instruction is in classrooms.
Ahart said the school board is “exceedingly concerned about the safety and well-being of its students and employees based on conditions in Des Moines and Polk County at the present time.”
Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo responded with a letter rejecting the request on Dec. 30.
She cited the Polk County positivity rate at 11.5% and pointed out it is well below the state guideline of 15%. She also concluded that although the districts 15% absentee rate among students is above the state’s guidance of 10%, “the Department gives this reported absenteeism less weight because it is from more than six weeks ago, when your students were last participating in in-person instruction.”
Lebo said recommendations from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which sets a safe level at under 5% positivity, were considered. She also said, “We are mindful of recent research showing that students engaged in remote learning are falling behind academically and that schools are not primary drivers of spread of the virus.”
Those comments reflect what Reynolds has said in recent weeks.
At her most recent press conference on Dec. 22, Reynolds said the trend in November that prompted so many schools to seek online learning “has completely gone down and trends are going in the right direction.”
“We need to get the kids back in school and we need to recognize that the majority of the schools are doing that,” she said.
Iowa reported 46 deaths on Monday for a total of 3,992. Iowa has the 15th highest per capita COVID-19 death rate at 125 deaths per 100,000 people. The seven-day rolling average of the positivity rate in Iowa has risen over the past two weeks from nearly 32% on Dec. 20 to over 44% on Jan. 3. Iowa’s positivity rate is fourth highest in the nation, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.
Teachers and school staff are among the deaths.
Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek placed the number of deaths in the high teens.
On Monday, state health data indicated 45 counties had a positivity rate above 15% and 11 were above 20%. Beranek said that suggests the pandemic is not under control in those communities and local school officials should make decisions about whether they should be online or in class.
The Iowa Department of Education reported no school districts were currently approved for temporary online learning as of Monday.
The department’s spokeswoman and the governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to messages.
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to bring the coronavirus pandemic under enough control to open most of the nation’s schools by the end of his first 100 days as president. He said that depends on Congress providing funding to make in-class learning safe. He has proposed sending Congress an emergency funding package to help schools reopen with a price tag worth up to $30 billion.
He said it should be a national priority “to get our kids back into school and keep them in school.”