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COVID-19 Trends Must Improve Before Des Moines Schools Will Switch To Hybrid

Michael Leland
Des Moines Public Schools is under pressure to bring students back to school to comply with state guidelines and support underserved students.

The Des Moines School Board has agreed to move the district toward a hybrid learning plan that would comply with state requirements, but only once COVID-19 spread in Polk County declines further.

The Des Moines School Board voted 4-3 Tuesday to move the district toward a hybrid learning plan that would comply with state requirements for 50 percent in-person instruction.

But any potential transition to even partial in-person learning would hinge on whether Polk County can reach benchmarks for COVID-19 transmission that are much lower than the criteria adopted by state education and public health officials.

DMPS is suing to overturn those state guidelines, but lost an attempt to temporarily block them while the lawsuit goes forward. Board member Rob Barron said now it is time for the district to take the first steps to bring students back.

“I want to get back in those buildings. I think that’s consistent with what a lot of folks in our community are telling us,” Barron said, adding that a survey of parents was “basically a 50/50 split” between those who wanted to stay all-virtual and those who wanted to go to hybrid learning. “That tells me that we need to put ourselves on a path toward starting a hybrid.”

Superintendent Thomas Ahart shared a draft set of Return-to-Learn metrics with the board that would be used in place of state metrics, to decide when pandemic conditions are safe enough to bring students and teachers back together face-to-face. They include:

· Less than one new case per day per 100,000 people in Polk County over a 7-day rolling average

· A 14-day average positivity rate of less than 5 percent

· A reproduction value of less than 1, which indicates the virus is spreading more slowly

Ahart said the goal is to reach a level of transmission low enough so that schools won’t have to immediately close if there is a surge in cases.

But as long as DMPS classes remain primarily online without state approval, the days do not count toward the district’s 180-day academic calendar. Gov. Kim Reynolds has said those days will have to be made up, which the district has estimated would come at a cost of approximately $1.5 million per day.

Board member Teree Caldwell-Johnson said some students are falling even farther behind academically under virtual learning after spending nearly six months away from school since buildings closed in March. She said ignoring state guidelines could rob the district of the resources it will need to help those students catch up.

“I feel like we’re failing a lot of our students,” Caldwell-Johnson said. “I’m not willing to be reckless and irresponsible to the point that I’m strapping a future board with having to deal with the consequence of a fiscal crisis that I’ve created. An academic crisis I’ve created.”

The school board will meet again next week to hear plans to identify some students who may be able to go back to school in-person even before a switch to hybrid learning, including those struggling the most with online classes.