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Some Plymouth County Schools Delay Start Date Because of County's High Coronavirus Positivity Rate

School was supposed to start Monday for Marcus Meriden Cleghorn and Remsen Union school districts, but MMCRU delayed the start date until Thursday because of Plymouth County's high positivity rate.

A northwest Iowa county’s rate of positive coronavirus cases that is the highest in the state has led a couple of school districts to delay their start date while others have already started or still plan to start on time.

Floyd Valley Community Health Manager Tara Geddes, director of Plymouth County’s public health department, said the county continues to see community spread.

“We can confirm that we have had an outbreak of cases in Akron tied to a specific golf tournament,” Geddes said in a statement. “Remsen is also seeing an increase in cases but these are tied to multiple small clusters of events and not to one specific event.”

School was supposed to start Monday for Marcus Meriden Cleghorn and Remsen Union school districts, which have students in Cherokee and Plymouth counties and do a grade-sharing agreement. When Plymouth’s two-week positivity rate rose over 20 percent last week, MMCRU announced they pushed the start date back to Thursday, Aug. 27. Plymouth County’s 14-day positivity rate is at 20.8 percent as of 6 p.m. Monday. MMCRU Superintendent Dan Barkel called the rate of positive cases “very concerning.”

“We were planning on going face-to-face right from the very beginning and felt pretty confident with that plan until suddenly the positivity rate in Plymouth County skyrocketed,” Barkel said. “So that put us in a bit of a pickle.”

In a memo to the MMCRU community, Barkel wrote classes will start Thursday if the rate in both Plymouth and Cherokee counties is below 20 percent the day before.

If the rate does not decline below 20 percent, Barkel said they will likely move forward with hybrid learning where half of the students would be in a building at a time while the other half learn from home. But he said it would be difficult to do that right away because not all of the Chromebooks and iPads MMCRU has ordered have arrived yet.

“We’re still going to limp along as best as we can with the devices we already had,” Barkel said.

Barkel said he’s hopeful, based on what he’s heard from Plymouth County’s public health department, that the rate declines enough for them to go to full in-person learning on Thursday. He said he doesn’t anticipate they’ll need to make up any school days from delaying the start date.

Plymouth County has a total of 615 coronavirus cases and 410 are considered recovered as of 6 p.m. Monday.

The county's positivity rate was below 10 percent when the Kingsley-Pierson Community School District started on Aug. 13, Superintendent Scott Bailey said. He said the rise in the rate is concerning. The district is also partly located in Woodbury County, which has a 9.5 percent positivity rate as of 6 p.m. Monday.

“As of right now, we’re going to continue with our in-person learning and adjust things as we go along,” Bailey said.

Kingsley-Pierson was told late Friday of a middle school student’s positive coronavirus case.

“We had 14 students that were in close contact with that other student,” Bailey said, “and so when we contacted the parents, we transitioned [the students] to virtual learning as of this morning.”

Bailey said they could ask for the state’s permission to go to full virtual learning across the district if the need arises. For a school district to be able to get permission to move to majority virtual learning, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has said the county the school is in must have a 14-day average positivity rate of at least 15 percent and at least 10 percent of students must be absent.

School started Monday in Hinton. The Hinton Community School District said last week that it was moving forward with in-person learning on the day planned because “only a handful of cases are currently in Hinton.”

Akron-Westfield, Le Mars Community School District and Le Mars Gehlen Catholic High School start classes in-person on Tuesday. Remsen St. Mary’s pushed its start date back to Thursday.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.