Created: December 12, 2020 09:15 AM
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Gov. Kim Reynolds’ administration approved requests Friday for school districts to keep offering 100% online instruction for tens of thousands of students, as coronavirus transmission remained high across the state.
The Iowa Department of Education granted waivers allowing the school districts in Des Moines, the state’s largest, and the suburb of Johnston to continue teaching online as a safety precaution until Christmas break begins later this month.
The department also granted waivers for the schools in Iowa City and Fairfield, but those districts told parents they would nonetheless return to 50% in-person instruction Monday.
Under the governor’s policy, districts can move online for two weeks if their county’s 14-day positivity rate exceeds 15%. In granting the waivers Friday, Department of Education Director Ann Lebo warned that the department was considering raising that benchmark further “as the knowledge about how COVID-19 is prevented and transmitted continues to expand and evolve.”
Public health experts say that metric was already dangerously high, while the Republican governor has recently claimed that schools are largely safe from the virus and called for them to reopen.
Many rural districts where positivity rates exceed 20% or 30% have kept schools open five days per week, winning praise from some parents and the governor but contributing to the community spread of the virus.
As of Friday, nearly 24% of public school students were learning completely from home; nearly 41% were going daily in person; and the rest were in districts offering a combination, according to tracking by the Iowa State Education Association.
Reynolds said this week that she wants the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass a law forcing all districts to offer five days of in-person learning if parents want that option for their children. She said parents are struggling to work and oversee online learning, and that some students have fallen behind.
Des Moines, with an enrollment of 32,600 students, and Johnston had appeared likely to qualify for waivers to remain online because Polk County’s positivity rate was at 15.4% on Friday.
Des Moines Superintendent Thomas Ahart said in its waiver request that school officials want to reopen classrooms as soon as possible, but it’s not yet safe to do so.
“The Board believes at this time that the rates of COVID-19 transmission in Des Moines and Polk County are so high as to render in-person instruction an unreasonable risk to the well-being of our students and staff,” he wrote.
Iowa City, which has 14,500 students, had its waiver approved even though Johnson County’s 14-day positivity rate is at 11.3%, below the benchmark.
Nonetheless, the district said it would resume a hybrid schedule next week in which students will attend two or three days in person, citing “this late notice and the current positivity rates in our community.”
The district had called the state’s approach misguided and passed its own policy calling for off-site learning when the positivity rate exceeds 10%.
On Thursday, the education department granted a waiver allowing Boone High School to move online after 29 of its students tested positive in recent days, and nearly 20% of its student body was in quarantine.
The moves come as virus-related deaths continue to surge to their highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, with 77 reported on Friday. New cases also increased for a third straight day by more than 2,000. That was above the state’s seven-day rolling average of 1,486 new daily cases.
Cases had been declining from a peak of more than 5,000 per day last month when a surge of patients overwhelmed some hospitals. Reynolds issued her first limited statewide mask mandate and enacted other public health mitigation strategies in response — measures she will consider lifting next week.
(Copyright 2020 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)