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Reynolds Order Puts Limits On Remote Learning

Gov. Kim Reynolds is requiring schools to plan for at least 50 percent of teaching to take place face-to-face when classes resume in August.
Grant Gerlock
Gov. Kim Reynolds is requiring schools to plan for at least 50 percent of teaching to take place face-to-face when classes resume in August.

Some Iowa school districts could be rewriting their plans to resume classes this fall after Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Friday that at least half of students’ learning time on core subjects must be done in-person.

That would be a significant shift for districts planning to spend most days teaching through virtual platforms as a precaution against the coronavirus. The Iowa City school board voted this week to begin the year with all remote learning. High school students in Des Moines Public Schools had been planning on attending class in-person only once per week.

A proclamation signed by Reynolds allows a temporary switch to more than 50 percent remote learning only when it’s approved by the Iowa Department of Education with input from the Iowa Department of Public Health. It also allows families to choose between in-person and remote learning.

Reynolds said, like many educators, she’s concerned about students losing ground academically while trying to navigate virtual classes. She also wants districts to prioritize face-to-face education so children don’t miss out on learning social skills and developing relationships.

“It’s really imperative that we get our kids back in school, especially those most vulnerable so we don’t leave them behind,” Reynolds said at a press conference in the Van Meter School auditorium.

Dr. Amy Kimball, a pediatrician in Winterset who was invited to speak at the press conference, said isolation can harm students’ social and emotional development.

“I'm concerned about the potential negative effects of social isolation on children and adolescents and potentially teens who are struggling with substance abuse, depression or who are victims of abuse,” said Kimball, who is also the former president of the Iowa chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The order was announced on the same day Iowa set a record for new coronavirus infections reported in 24 hours, adding 879 confirmed positives. The state’s largest education union called it short-sighted to require more instruction in close quarters when community spread is trending upward.

“Her proclamation means schools are forced to expose students and school employees unnecessarily only to strip them of their local control and force them to appeal to the Department of Education in consultation with the Department of Public Health to seek permission to shut down again in an attempt to prevent further community spread,” Iowa State Education Association president Mike Beranek said in a statement.

Reynolds said the limits on remote learning are based on an education law passed in June which states that districts “shall not take action to provide instruction primarily through remote-learning opportunities” except under circumstances authorized through a proclamation from the governor. She said her proclamation simply defines what will be allowed.

That misinterprets the law, according to Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo. Smith said the law was meant to give schools flexibility to offer remote learning during the pandemic. Instead, he said, schools will have fewer options.

“The intent of this was to give local school districts the flexibility and the funding that they needed to expand their online programs and to make changes if needed,” said Smith, who also serves as the top Democrat on the House Education Committee. “To dictate and to trample on our freedoms of local government is really is baffling to me that our governor would do that and it’s upsetting that in this moment it’s so short-sighted.”

Smith said the order may not force changes for districts that are already planning for in-person classes, but it places a burden on schools weighing local public health data showing a sharp increase in cases of COVID-19 and districts that lack enough space to physically distance.

The proclamation also allows substitute teachers to fill-in for longer periods, expands who can qualify as a substitute and lowers the age limit to 20-years-old.

The Department of Education plans to share more details on the expectations for in-person learning next week. Guidance on how schools should respond to positive cases of COVID-19 among students and staff is expected by August 1, just weeks before schools open their doors.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa