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School Districts Grapple With Governor's Limits On Remote Learning

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Some Iowa school districts are scrambling to rethink their fall reopening plans after Gov. Kim Reynolds announced they'll be required to offer primarily in-person instruction.

The Iowa Department of Education has issued updated guidance clarifying that local districts cannot implement online-only instruction this fall, except under certain circumstances approved under a proclamation issued by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

The guidelines posted to the IDOE website Monday come as some districts are scrambling to respond to Reynolds’ announcement last Friday that at least half of students’ instructional time on core subjects must be conducted face-to-face.

“This means that a school cannot provide more than half of its instruction through remote learning opportunities over any two-week period without explicit authorization by a governor’s proclamation,” the guidance reads in part.

The announcement came more than two weeks after the July 1 deadline for districts to send their “return to learn” plans the IDOE; many of the state’s largest districts see large scale virtual instruction as a major part of their fall semester, due to the escalating spread of the coronavirus in Iowa.

The new guidance means those districts may have to rework their policies, a little more than a month before school starts back in August.

This means that a school cannot provide more than half of its instruction through remote learning opportunities over any two-week period without explicit authorization by a governor’s proclamation.
- Iowa Department of Education Guidance

“Today's proclamation by the Governor raises as many questions as it answers,” Des Moines Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Ahart said in a statement Friday, noting that his staff dedicated thousands of hours to develop the district’s plan to allow individual students to choose between a fully virtual experience or hybrid instruction.

“The lack of clear and often time contradicting guidance from the federal and state governments has left local officials, including school districts, to their own devices to determine what is best for their community,” Ahart said.

The Iowa City Community School Board voted on July 14 to start its fall semester entirely online, with plans to reassess whether to a switch to hybrid instruction later on this fall, depending on the scope of the pandemic at that time.

The governor’s announcement caught school administrators by surprise, after spending weeks drafting large-scale and long-term virtual learning plans.

Iowa City Community School Board President Shawn Eyestone said Monday afternoon that the updated DOE guidance means it’s not clear if his district can stick to its virtual plan.

“The governor changed those goalposts on us to a certain degree,” Eyestone said Monday at a meeting of elected officials from across Johnson County. “The important part is that we still feel like our local decision is what’s best for our local school district and we want to hold to that.”

There are exceptions to the rule requiring primarily in-person instruction: parents or guardians may opt-in to a remote-only learning plan for their child; an entire building or district can make a “temporary move” to primarily remote learning due to public health conditions, if IDOE and Iowa Department of Public Health approve; a school may decide that individual classrooms or students must “temporarily move” to virtual instruction, in consultation with state and local public health officials; and a school may move to online education due to severe weather, instead of taking a snow day.

The governor changed those goalposts on us to a certain degree.
- Shawn Eyestone, Iowa City Community School District Board President

IDOE is working to provide more information on when districts could request a temporary move to remote teaching, but the guidance warns that long-term shifts are not likely to be granted.

“It is not anticipated that the Department will approve long-term plans for districts to provide instruction primarily through remote learning given the possibility of changing future public health conditions,” the guidance reads.

Eyestone said the ICCSD will apply for a “waiver” to proceed with virtual instruction, though he said he’s doubtful it will be approved.

Schools across the country are grappling with how to resume classes in the fall, at a time when cases of COVID-19 are surging in rural and urban communities, while families struggle to meet even basic needs amid the pandemic-fueled economic recession.

For students, public education can represent a haven for socialization and normalcy and a vital connection to social services, even more than just a place to develop the fundamentals of literacy and intellectual curiosity.

In a state that was grappling with a childcare crisis even before the pandemic, it is essential for many parents and guardians to get their kids to school safely in order to hold down jobs.

Still, for many the risk is too high that the contagious virus could tear through classrooms, which are too often overcrowded or aging, staffed by teachers who have long had to pay for their students’ paper and pencils, let alone hand sanitizer and cleaning products.

In response to Friday’s announcement, the state’s teachers union has started a petition asking Reynolds to rescind her recent proclamation and enhance districts’ local control.

“We stand behind those school districts that are making good decisions about the health and safety of the people in their care,” the Iowa State Education Association petition reads in part. “Instead of making it even harder to keep our schools safe, we need you to empower school districts, staff and parents to decide what is best for their kids and communities.”