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Schools Weigh Plans To Welcome Students Without Spreading COVID-19

Des Moines Public Schools never resumed classes after spring break last spring. Now the district plans to split students into groups that would spend part of the week at school and part of the week learning remotely.
John Pemble
IPR file
Des Moines Public Schools never resumed classes after spring break last spring. Now the district plans to split students into groups that would spend part of the week at school and part of the week learning remotely.

At Clarke Community Schools in Osceola, Iowa, Superintendent Steve Seid has an idea of how to rearrange things in school so students can come back safely in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Desks will be spread out as much as possible. Students will be sent to the restroom one-at-a-time. Lunch periods and class dismissals will be staggered to keep people from cramming into hallways and cafeterias all at once.

Buses are still a puzzle, though. Students ride the bus to school from all across the county. Seid isn’t sure how to manage that while observing social distancing.

“With social distancing on the school bus, a 77-passenger school bus, you can get about 13 students on it,” Seid said. “No doubt we’ll be able to figure it out but it just is altogether new.”

The district could ask more parents to bring their children to school, or buses could carry more students than recommended. Guidelines from the Iowa Department of Education state that schools cannot guarantee social distancing at all times. Seid says the district is still deciding.

Iowa schools are sharing more information about what classes could look like when students return next month. Wednesday is the deadline for districts to share their “Return to Learn” plans with the Iowa Department of Education. The plans show a district has thought through how to make their buildings safer if students come back in person, how they would provide distance learning if students must stay home and how they would structure a hybrid system of learning with a combination of face-to-face and virtual classes.

However, the plans are not the final word. School administrators are continuing to work through hundreds of details on how to reopen safely.

Credit Michael Leland / IPR file photo
IPR file photo
Teachers at Callanan Middle School in Des Moines share an uplifting message with students forced to stay at home because of the coronavirus.

The Department of Education released guidelines last week that call for frequent handwashing and call on districts to provide protective equipment for staff members who are at a high risk of exposure to COVID-19, such as para professionals who work closely with students.

But the agency has received blowback over a recommendation against requiring face coverings. In a document clarifying that position, education officials said mandating masks could raise legal and training issues.

“Some individuals might not be able to use cloth face coverings due to a health or safety concern including but not limited to age, developmental disability, underlying condition, or mental health concern,” the department said.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines say masks should be worn by students and teachers when feasible, “and are most essential in times when physical distancing is difficult.”

The Iowa State Education Association, the state’s largest education union, is calling on state education officials to reverse their position and is urging districts to adopt local requirements. Several of them, including Des Moines, Iowa City and Waterloo, have already said they plan to do so. But some teachers and parents have concerns about how new layers of rules and polices will impact the learning environment.

Beth Buelow is the mother of two elementary students in West Des Moines. She said masks may work when kids use them properly, but she doesn’t expect them to do that throughout a school day.

“The other thing is the kids are eating together and you can't wear a mask while you're eating together,” Buelow said. “So if you're not wearing a mask while you're in the cafeteria together, and you're not wearing a mask while you're at recess, then I question the value of wearing a mask in the classroom.”

Speaking on a briefing about school reopening plans hosted by the ISEA, Dr. Megan Srinivas said classrooms present a risk for rapid transmission because they are enclosed spaces with little ventilation. Distancing and face coverings each reduce that risk.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a mask, it can be a face shield,” said Srinivas, an infectious disease specialist based in Fort Dodge. “Sure, children might remove their face shield from time to time. It’s not about getting it perfect. It’s about teaching them how to do it because even wearing that face covering for part of the time can greatly reduce transmission and increase the likelihood that our kids can stay in school.”

"We can't 100 percent protect the health of our staff and students and at the same time do our best job educating them." - Des Moines Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Ahart

Marco Arreola, a Des Moines middle school business and technology teacher, thinks it may be easier if schools avoid the potential headaches that come with rules around reopening and focus instead on building a more effective virtual learning system.

“At least if we tell parents ahead of time, ‘Hey, we're going to be distance learning,’ then perhaps we can make plans easier than if we were to just say, ‘Hey, we're going back but if something happens at any moment we could be sending your kids back to home,’” Arreola said.

Still, school officials are eager to bring students back. By the time classes resume, most student will have been away from away from the classroom for around five months. Many will be behind academically, but teachers and administrators are also worried about what this period of isolation is doing to their emotional and mental health. 

“The impact on our kids of having social isolation has been nothing short of wicked,” said Waterloo superintendent Jane Lindaman. “There’s a lot of kids out there who are having struggles and having concerns that we don’t know about and that’s really alarming to me. The gap is getting bigger.”

Lindaman said school staff are working on a virtual option for students who aren’t comfortable coming back to school, but there are students she wants to come back because they’ll need more academic and emotional support. Also, there are families where both parents are essential workers and she said staying home isn’t an option for them.

At Des Moines Public Schools, the state’s largest district, students will choose between an all virtual option and a hybrid option where they will split time learning at school and at home.

Supt. Thomas Ahart said, with the infection rate rising in many states and in Polk County, it would be unsafe to return to school the same way as last fall. At the same time, any time spent away from the classroom makes it harder for children to learn.

“We can’t 100 percent protect the health of our staff and students and at the same time do our best job educating them,” Ahart said.

The dilemma for schools is that students need time with teachers and classmates, but there is also an urgent need to keep the pandemic under control and if district leaders don’t take the right precautions their school could be vulnerable to an outbreak.