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As School Starts, Districts Face Disruptions From COVID-19

Doc Searls
Many of Iowa's school districts are having to decide how to deal with positive coronavirus cases among students and staff.

As school districts across the state opened for classes this week, many of them immediately faced decisions on how to deal with positive coronavirus cases among students and staff.

On Monday, Indianola schools announced the whole sixth grade was going online because a teacher tested positive and other teachers were in close contact.

On Wednesday, Twin Cedars school district announced a change to all-virtual learning at least through Labor Day. The district received permission from the Iowa Department of Education to make the switch after multiple staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

An elementary school in the Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont district was closed Wednesday after several cases were confirmed among the staff.

The Clear-Creek Amana district called off in-person classes at the high school Thursday and went virtual because a student tested positive and many more may have been exposed at “a large gathering last Saturday night.” The building reopened Friday.

Many more districts are reporting positive cases and numbers of students and staff in quarantine.

Ankeny school district reported seven students and one staff member have tested positive. Thirty-nine more people are in isolation for close contact with the virus.

Norwalk reported that 77 students and three teachers are currently isolating as of Friday morning. An elementary school was closed for cleaning.

Schools opened just as positive case reports surged statewide. When Gov. Kim Reynolds announcednew restrictions on some bars and taverns Thursday, she also warned that community spread could threaten the health care and education workforces.

When schools report positive cases it does not mean closures and cancellations are sure to follow. The Iowa Department of Education is telling schools to provide at least 50 percent in-person instruction until their county reaches at least a 15 percent positivity rate and their absence rate starts rising.

Up to that point, schools are working with local public health departments to decide whether to close classes or grade levels, and which people should stay home. According to Rich Powers, superintendent of the Bondurant-Farrar Community School District, the impact depends on not only how many people test positive, but also which people are involved.

“It could be a trigger as simple as the numbers, but also the simple fact of we don't have food service staff, or custodians, or bus drivers, or teachers to adequately supervise their rooms,” Powers said. “That's where it gets a little more complicated.”

News of classes or schools moving online may raise alarms, but Waterloo superintendent Jane Lindaman argues it also shows schools are prepared to respond.

“When your school district makes a change, it's really a good thing. It means that they have more information and they're trying to make the best decisions,” Lindaman said. “I continually get asked what will we do if we have to shut down a room and I said, ‘Then that's what we will do. That's what our plan is.’”

Tracking the virus in schools

The actual scale of disruption in schools caused by the virus is difficult to gauge.

The Iowa Department of Education will share information on waivers requested by schools wishing to go virtual across an entire building or district, but is not collecting data from schools on actions they are able to take independently such as isolating staff and students, or closing individual classes or grades.

Gov. Reynolds said district officials often have information on infections in their schools before the state does.

“(School districts) are responsible for notifying the parents and their communities,” Reynolds said at a press conference Thursday. “That’s the process we have in place and that’s the process we’ll move forward with.”

But schools are not sharing that information consistently.

The Iowa State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has plans to create a central hub to collect and display school-related coronavirus cases with the website, Iowa COVID-19 Tracker. The site will begin posting information next week on data points such as confirmed infections and quarantined classes.

ISEA spokesperson, Jean Hessburg, said the lack of systematic reporting makes it difficult for teachers and parents to understand whether an outbreak is present in their schools.

“With this information popping up anecdotally, we have no way of really knowing what’s happening across the state,” Hessburg said. “Where there’s smoke is there fire? We don’t know. We hope to know that in short order.”

Hessburg says the site will take reports from the public but will break out information that has been verified by school officials.

Still early

Some of the largest districts in Iowa - including Des Moines, Ames, Davenport, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City - have yet to begin classes.

The Iowa City Community School District delayed the start of school to September 8 after a request to begin classes virtually was denied by the Iowa Department of Education. This week, as the COVID-19 infection rate surged in Johnson County, a new request was quickly approved.

ICCSD can stay virtual for two-weeks from the start of classes, the department said, and when that happens the district is also expected to suspend sports and other in-person activities.

The decision comes as Iowa City schools prepares for the first hearing in a lawsuit challenging state Return-to-Learn guidelines. The hearing takes place in a Johnson County courtroom next Thursday.

Other districts are moving ahead with their back-to-school plans, even in Plymouth County, which had the highest infection rate in the state.

Council Bluffs started classes Monday under a hybrid plan with students divided into two groups that alternate days attending classes at school and online. Superintendent Vicki Murillo said she was pleased to see students following distancing precautions and wearing masks as requested.

“The kids have come in prepared,” Murillo said. “It's just almost becoming like what we would say is a dress code. It's just an expectation.”

Council Bluffs is also promoting a campaign with surrounding districts to encourage mask-wearing throughout the community.

“Together we can keep our schools open and keep our community safe,” Murillo said. “It's kind of caught on and we're just really excited about that."

It’s still early in the year, but Murillo hopes that the result is a drop in infections that allows more students to safely return to their schools.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa