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Des Moines Parents, Students Warn Against Staying In Virtual Learning

Grant Gerlock
Nancy Mwirotsi joined other parents and DMPS students outside Edmunds Elementary to call for a switch to hybrid learning.

If Des Moines Public Schools continues to provide primarily online learning, students who were already falling behind will fall through the cracks. That was the warning Monday from parents, students and community groups urging the school board to move the district into a hybrid plan with a virtual option.

The Des Moines school board meets Tuesday night to decide whether to keep classes primarily online or bring students back in-person as required by the state. The district started classes online last week to protect students and teachers from spreading COVID-19, but some parents say their children need to go back in-person so they can get support that they cannot get from home.

Nina Richtman said her two sons in middle school have special needs that are not being met under the virtual plan. If they were in school they would be working one-on-one with an associate teacher.

Grant Gerlock
Thomaj Davis, a senior at Roosevelt High School, said he's worried virtual learning could cost him the opportunity for a college football scholarship.

“My kids have a lot of trouble engaging and they need very close supervision,” Richtman said. “The Return-to-Learn plan, as it is, doesn't provide much support to kids like mine and it really is a strain on families like mine where we’re just trying to get by every day and we’re really missing the community supports, the formal supports.”

Richtman was part of a group of parents, students and leaders of community non-profits who spoke outside of Edmunds Elementary.

Football players from North and Roosevelt high schools said without sports - which were suspended when DMPS started online classes - he and other athletes could be overlooked for scholarships, and lose any chance of affording college.

One of the key reasons the school board chose virtual learning was the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on people of color, in particular immigrants and refugees who are more likely to be part of the essential workforce. The board didn’t want to create and additional burden for those families by possibly exposing their children to COVID-19 at school.

But that decision exposed a preexisting education and technology gap, said Nancy Mwirotsi, the single-mother of a DMPS high school senior and leader of a STEM education after-school program. Mwirotsi works closely with refugee families and said virtual learning does their children no favors.

“Because most of them, you know, English is probably a second language,” she said. “Most of these families do not have any computer at home, but we are asking them to do online classes.”

Grant Gerlock
Pastor Eugene Kiruhura of Shalom Covenant Church in Urbandale said immigrant and refugee parents struggle to help their kids with virtual school because they don't understand the technology and don't speak English.

Mwirotsi said refugee caregivers, because they are often essential workers, are more worried about exposure to the virus through work than through school.

Pastor Eugene Kiruhura of Shalom Covenant Church in Urbandale said many families are also struggling to find day care. They either can’t afford programs that are available or can’t get into non-profit programs because they’re full. Kiruhura said 50 students, mostly from DMPS, are going to his church for help with online learning. They would take more, he said, if there were more volunteers.

Kameron Middlebrooks, president of the Des Moines NAACP, said a hybrid plan would help solve families’ problems by giving them an option for in-person learning for at least two or three days each week. He said others could stay virtual if they need to, or if they can make it work.

“It may work for families who have the resources available to send their children to a childcare facility that helps assist in the educational instruction,” Middlebrooks said. “It does not work for the child who has special needs that can only be provided in a classroom setting. It does not for the child who's falling behind and needs special attention.”

Over the weekend, DMPS surveyed parents on whether they would choose hybrid or virtual learning if they had the choice. The results could tell whether the district has enough space to start in-person classes.

Administrators have said if DMPS goes to a hybrid model, the transition could take two weeks for elementary and middle school students. High school could take months.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa