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Education

Ames Schools To Go Virtual As Districts Cope With Surging COVID-19 Cases

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The Ames Community School District has decided to start the year virtually as the community tries to contain one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks.

Ames schools filed a request for permission to go online with the Iowa Department of Education Monday morning. A previous request to begin mostly online and phase in in-person classes was rejected by the department earlier this month, but that was before a surge of COVID-19 cases.

A New York Times analysis shows the Ames area has the highest number of new coronavirus cases per 1,000 people of any metro area in the nation over the last two weeks.

The district is asking the IDOE to approve online learning for the first two weeks of the year, starting September 8. Board member Allen Bierbaum said he hopes no more than that is necessary.

“I realize that this has very real impacts for the beginning of the year, but it seems like the only responsible thing we can do is take action to protect the remainder of the year,” Bierbaum said.

The surge of case numbers in Ames is tied to students returning to Iowa State University. Board member Sabrina Shields-Cook said it may be tempting to call the outbreak an ISU problem, but she said many of the district’s students and teachers have connections on campus.

“Many of the faculty and staff at Iowa State have children in our district and some of them have tested positive for COVID,” Shields-Cook said. “It is going to cross those boundary lines and we just have to take all of the steps that we can to protect everyone in our community.”

Shields-Cook and other board members said they are disappointed for students involved in sports and other co-curriculars because the state has said districts must cancel activities when they go virtual.

When the state Department of Education approved a similar request from the Iowa City Community School District last week, the department also said it expected activities to be suspended.

Coronavirus cases have been cropping up in districts across the state since most started classes over the past two weeks. Carroll Community School District announced Monday that its high school will change to a hybrid model with partial in-person learning after six students tested positive and 95 were isolated because of possible exposure to the virus.

The 14-day infection rate in Carroll County was 19.3 percent on Monday. It is one of 12 counties over the state’s 15 percent threshold for requesting a switch to virtual learning, which is considered a dangerously high bar to clear by infectious disease experts.

In Plymouth County, which has the state's highest infection rate at 23.8 percent according to the Iowa Department of Public Health, Hinton Community Schools is moving grades 4-12 to a hybrid model with two days of in-person classes per week. Preschool through Third Grade will remain in-person.

"While previously, the data reflected communities outside our district, that is no longer true," the district administrative team said in a letter to families. "Although we highly encourage mask wearing in the 4-12 halls, compliance is not at a level that assures us we are lessening the opportunity for transmission. The rate of absence is increasing."

West Des Moines Community Schools held a special meeting Monday night to discuss the rising infection rate in Polk County, which has been over 10 percent since Friday.

The West Des Moines school board had previously decided to consider a switch to online learning when the county reaches that level. But the board took Superintendent Lisa Remy’s recommendation to stay with the current learning model, which includes a choice between all in-person or all-online classes.

Remy said student absence numbers are low overall, but West Des Moines has recorded more than a dozen positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff. In all, 85 students and 24 staff members are currently isolating at home because of close contact with the virus, including three separate elementary classes.