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Des Moines School Board Weighs Risks Of Violating Governor’s Order

Doc Searls
The Des Moines School Board meets Tuesday to decide whether to stay with virutal learning, while Gov. Kim Reynolds is calling on the district to meet with state officials and discuss how to return to at least 50 percent in-person instruction.

Des Moines Public Schools will stay in virtual learning, for now, even after a Polk County judge ruled that without a state waiver the district is violating guidelines for in-person learning during the pandemic.

The school board will meet again Tuesday to talk more about how to respond to state guidelines that require districts to provide at least half of instruction in-person unless the local county has a two-week coronavirus infection rate of 15 percent and at least 10 percent of students are absent with COVID-19.

In a work meeting Thursday night several Des Moines school board members said they support remaining in virtual learning because of community transmission of the virus in Polk County.

“I am going to always err on side of safety,” board member Dwana Bradley said. “My order of things right now is for the is safety of our students and our staff, the instruction that they are receiving and compliance is at the bottom of my list right now.”

Others on the board were torn between the urgency of the health risk and the potential consequences of breaking the state’s Return-to-Learn guidelines. Kimberly Martonaro said she’s concerned about the financial impact. Gov. Kim Reynolds has said districts that go online without permission will have to make up the time.

“It's very scary knowing that the lives of our students and our staff are in our hands right now,” Martonaro said. “I don’t think that it’s safe, however, I don’t think we can risk being out of compliance.”

The board on Tuesday will consider whether to stick with primarily online learning through the first quarter of the school year or whether to move to a hybrid plan sooner, beginning with elementary and middle school students.

The Iowa Department of Education has told DMPS that its revised hybrid plan would meet the state’s expectations for grades K-8. In that plan, students would alternate weeks with either two or three days of learning in-person and the rest of the time learning online from home. Noelle Nelson, DMPS executive director of teaching and learning, said the hybrid plan gives students time face-to-face with their teachers but it actually means they spend less time receiving direct instruction.

“We’re struggling even from an instructional standpoint that now we’re going to be forced to compromise on safety and instructional quality,” Nelson said.

The discussion Thursday followed a Polk County judge’s ruling this week that the school board does not have authority to choose virtual learning without state approval, even if it believes returning to school is a health risk for students and teachers.

“Basically, the legislature and the governor and (Department of Education) has made a judgment call that the benefits of sending kids back to school outweigh the increased risks of illness and death,” Judge Jeffrey Farrell wrote in his ruling. “Certainly, that decision is subject to debate. However, the legislature, governor, and state agencies make and implement policy. Whether right or wrong, that is their decision to make.”

Although Farrell rejected the district’s bid for an emergency injunction, the lawsuit is moving forward.

Governor Calls For Compliance

At a press conference Thursday, Reynolds said Des Moines Public Schools is the only district that has not complied with state Return-to-Learn rules. The only other schools that are currently online - the Ames and Iowa City school districts - received two-week waivers after the coronavirus infection rates shot up to more than 20 percent in Johnson and Story counties.

Other than DMPS, no other district has chosen to go online without a state waiver. Now, Reynolds said, the district must work to bring students back in-person.

“It's very scary knowing that the lives of our students and our staff are in our hands right now. I don’t think that it’s safe, however, I don’t think we can risk being out of compliance.”
Kimberly Martonaro, DMPS board member

“Online learning is great for families who have the means to make it work, but it’s not so good for those who live in stressed economic conditions,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds invited Des Moines School Board members to meet with officials from the Iowa Department of Education and Iowa Department of Public Health to discuss how to bring the district in line with in-person learning requirements. That meeting happened Thursday afternoon. Board member Dwana Bradley said education and public health officials did not show interest in compromise.

“Compliant is where they want us to get to and where they want us to be,” Bradley said. “They want to make sure that we’re following the law that’s been set forth and I didn’t feel in that conversation that there was any room for compromise at all.”

The most difficult place to meet state requirements, according to Superintendent Thomas Ahart, is in the district’s high schools where up to 35 students sometimes pack into classrooms that he said may only be able to fit eight or nine students with six feet of physical distancing.

Ahart said state officials recommended a strategy used by Sioux City and some other districts where high school students are divided into two groups that each spend two days in-person. On the fifth day, they have the option to visit teachers for additional learning time. Ahart said as long as the office hours are open to all students, the day would count toward in-person instruction.

“If we said Wednesday is available for anyone who needs extra help, and no one comes in, that would count,” Ahart said. “That’s not the standard that we were trying to use to drive the experience that we wanted our students to have.”

Board member Teree Caldwell-Johnson urged Ahart and other board members to keep communication with state officials open.

“I am not going to close the door,” Caldwell-Johnson said. “I just refuse to do that because I think that our kids deserve better and I think that as long as we continue to put up road blocks we’re not getting ourselves to where we need to be. The state wants us to be compliant.”

The Risk Of Going Alone

Des Moines school leaders maintain that returning even to partial in-person classes creates an unacceptable health risk to students and staff members. According to a district survey, more than 30 percent of staff members have a health condition that puts them at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

However, refusing to comply with state guidelines creates the potential for severe financial risks. School districts are required to provide 180 days of classes. If DMPS ultimately loses its lawsuit against the state, its unapproved virtual days will not count toward that requirement.

Des Moines schools could end the year without reaching that mark, but district leaders would likely have to go before the Iowa State Board of Education to answer for violating state accreditation requirements.

“It's a disruption in all the work that's going on to provide education for students to have to pull your leaders away from educating students to answer all of the questions that the department might have for you,” said Margaret Buckton, legislative analyst for the Urban Education Network, a consortium of the state's largest districts.

The district could also choose to extend the year to make up for days that didn’t count. That would likely mean finding extra money to continue paying teachers. That kind of spending is restricted by budget authority rules approved by the legislature. If district spending goes beyond that amount, Buckton said, the state School Budget Review Committee could require cuts in future years to make up for it.

“That would have huge ramifications for the next year for insufficient staffing, increased class sizes, fewer programs - all of those things that have to be accomplished just to make up for going over that spending ceiling,” Buckton said.

DMPS superintendent Ahart has said that at a daily cost of approximately $1.5 million, the district only has 3-4 additional days’ worth of spending available in its authorized budget to keep schools open. Thursday, the district reached day four of virtual learning without state approval.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa