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State Denies Des Moines Public Schools' Request To Start The Year Virtually

Iowa school districts are making their final decisions about how they will bring students back to class.
Michael Leland
IPR file
Des Moines Public Schools will move ahead to start the year with primarily virtual learning even after the plan was rejected by the Iowa Department of Education.

The Iowa Department of Education has denied a request from Des Moines Public Schools to begin the year with primarily virtual learning, however, the district intends to continue with its plans anyway and will file suit against the state to reverse the decision.

The district announced Friday a lawsuit will be filed in Polk County next week.

“DMPS tried to work closely with the State, including numerous conversations with the Governor and her staff, and the Iowa Department of Education, to develop a plan that meets everyone’s expectations, but unfortunately we are not being provided the flexibility to do what we need to do to continue the education of our more than 32,000 students and protect the health and safety of our students, staff, their families and our community,” DMPS superintendent Thomas Ahart said in a statement.

Ahart has said the district could adjust its hybrid plan in lower grades to meet Gov. Kim Reynolds’ order to provide at least half of instruction in-person, but it would be an “impossibility” to do so at the high school level while observing physical distancing.

“To meet the expectations of the state, there’s no earthly way that we can provide any meaningful social distancing,” Ahart said.

The Iowa Department of Education said in a statement that families can choose an all-virtual option, but the district cannot choose that option for all students. In a letter to the district, director Ann Lebo said the COVID-19 infection rate in Polk County does not meet the state's criteria for going virtual.

“And your request, including the detailed letter you provided, and our consultation with the Iowa Department of Public Health have not identified any other basis for concluding that it is appropriate to start the school year with primarily remote learning,” Lebo wrote.

The current 14-day infection rate in Polk County is 8.14 percent, according to the county health department. The Iowa Department of Education has determined a switch to virtual learning will not be granted unless the rate surpasses at least 15 percent.

Interpretation of that data has been complicated by mistakes in reporting the accurate date of test results by the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Des Moines is one of several districts - including Iowa City, Waukee, West Des Moines and Ames - that are making plans to go outside of those guidelines and react to local virus transmission at lower rates. The districts are all creating their own metrics to decide when to go virtual and when it’s safe to reopen.

Reynolds has said schools that go virtual without state permission may have to make up time at the end of the school year and administrators could face discipline through their professional licensing boards.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the governor said she was “disappointed to hear that the Des Moines Public School system plans to sue the state rather than to work cooperatively to develop a Return-to-Learn plan that complies with the law and meets the educational needs of Iowa’s children.”

DMPS board member Rob Barron said the district’s options for reopening were approved by the state more than two weeks before Reynolds issued a mandate for in-person learning. He said the governor’s guidelines undermined choices made by local officials.

“The Governor should respect local leadership across the state, and in a time of great loss in our state should be asking us how she can help,” Barron said. “It gives me zero joy to say we need to start virtually because I know that there are impacts on our students that we would want to avoid if at all possible, but we think that that is the right choice for the health of this community.”

The Iowa City Community School District, which previously lost its own request to start the year virtually, announced a lawsuit filed with the Iowa State Education Association on Wednesday that is aimed at blocking the state's Return-to-Learn guidelines.

The lawsuit, filed in Johnson County, argues that local school boards should have the final say on when to switch between in-person and virtual learning plans in response to the pandemic, regardless of the state’s position. It disputes Gov. Reynolds’ claim that a law passed in late-June (SF 2310) gives her power to mandate in-person learning.

“The Iowa State Education Association has no desire to keep schools closed provided that a return to those schools is safe,” ISEA attorney Jay Hammond said on a press conference call Wednesday. “What we are asking the court to determine is that ultimate authority lies with the individual school boards of every school district across the state of Iowa.”

A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 3 where the district and teachers’ union will request a temporary injunction against enforcement of state guidelines while the case makes its way through the courts. The first day of school in Des Moines is scheduled for Sept. 8.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa