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Iowa Schools In Counties With Highest Coronavirus Test Positivity Plan For In-Person Learning

essex school sign
Michael Leland
IPR file
Iowa is requiring school districts to conduct at least half of their instruction in person when classes resume for the fall. Districts may request a waiver if they have a high enough absentee rate and high enough county positivity rate for the coronavirus.

Almost all school districts in the Iowa counties with the highest coronavirus test positivity rates are planning to start school fully in-person, as leaders consider local virus data and the state’s rule that they conduct mostly in-person learning unless they meet certain criteria.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced that in order for a school to request state permission to conduct majority virtual learning, the county the school is in must reach a 14-day average test positivity rate of 15 percent, and at least 10 percent of students must be absent.

On Thursday, the state reported six counties as having 14-day test positivity averages of 15 percent or higher, though a report from the Telegraph Herald calls into question the state’s calculations.

Some superintendents in those counties said their understanding of state guidance is they must bring students back in person, because they can’t fulfill the 10 percent absenteeism requirement.

“With school not in session, to me and the district it’s somewhat of a moot point,” said Steve Seid, superintendent of Clarke Community School District.

Clarke County had an 18 percent average test positivity rate Thursday, according to the state.

Seid said without the student absence requirement, he would want to ask the state for permission to move to more virtual learning.

Seid noted some government offices in Iowa are staying closed until October, and some college sports and outdoor events have been canceled because of coronavirus concerns.

“However, we are still expected to have hundreds and thousands of students in the next couple of weeks all gathered together in their buildings—which is completely against what other areas or organizations are doing or required to do—and are expected to keep everyone as safe as possible,” Seid said. “So it’s concerning as we move forward with this.”

Seid said the district is requiring face coverings and has bought nearly $9,000 worth of PPE and requested more from the state for the beginning of the school year.

In Humboldt County, the state reported a 25 percent average test positivity rate Thursday.

Jim Murray, superintendent of Humboldt Community Schools and Twin Rivers Community Schools, said they’ll start back up with fully in-person learning, and he does not see a need to try to move to virtual learning at this time.

“When you consider positivity rate, it looks worse than it is here,” Murray said. “We have to make sure that we factor in that we’re not testing everybody that wants a test in our county.”

He noted that one day this week, the state reported five Humboldt County residents were tested for coronavirus, and one was positive. That calculates to a 20 percent test positivity rate for the day.

Murray said he will monitor local and school data along with a local public health official and follow state “return to learn” guidance. He’s also concerned about having enough school staff to continue in-person learning if some get sick or have to quarantine.

“That may drive our decision making as much as positivity rate and student attendance,” Murray said. “I’m not sure where that’s at in considering virtual learning versus in person learning, as far as the governor and the Iowa Department of Public Health are concerned.”

Murray said he plans to require masks in schools when social distancing isn’t possible, and said he looks forward to seeing kids back in school.

Webster County had a 24 percent average test positivity rate Thursday, according to the state’s coronavirus website.

The Fort Dodge Community School District in Webster County plans to resume fully in-person instruction and has not asked the state for permission to go online, according to district spokesperson Jennifer Lane.

"Based on our communication with our local public health department, we do not believe the current 14 day average positivity rate of 24% is an accurate reflection of community spread in Webster County," Lane said in an email.

Reynolds last week said schools in Webster County should “make every effort” to return to in-person learning. She said the high test positivity rate there was partly because of the coronavirus outbreak at the Fort Dodge prison.

“That number—and that’s why it’s so important to work closely with the department of education and department of public health—doesn’t always give a complete picture for school districts,” Reynolds said. “Which is why the community context will be so important for schools to consider.”

Prison staff, however, are not isolated from the rest of the community.

In Lucas County, the state reported a 20 percent average test positivity rate Thursday.

Chariton Community School District Superintendent Larry Achenbach said PreK-5 students will be fully in-person and 6th through 12th graders will start with a partly virtual learning model that aligns with the state's mandate of mostly in-person instruction.

“We’ve had more cases here in the last week, and it made us step back and look at what we were doing and change our plans to make sure our students and staff are safe,” Achenbach said.

Lucas County has reported 73 total coronavirus cases over the course of the pandemic.

Achenbach said he also believes the state wouldn’t consider granting a waiver for more virtual learning unless they first return to school in-person, because of the state’s criteria for student absences.

State officials have not directly answered questions about whether they would consider allowing any school districts to start the school year with mostly online learning if they have high test positivity.

Meanwhile, a few Iowa superintendents have said their school districts will decide for themselves when virtual learning is needed. The state has said it may require those districts to make up instruction time or penalize administrators.