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Des Moines School Board Sets Possible Dates For In-Person Learning

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

Des Moines Public Schools has set dates to go back to class in-person next month, but only if Polk County meets target coronavirus levels that remain undefined.

Under an updated hybrid plan approved Monday night, Des Moines schools would come into compliance with state Return-to-Learn guidelines after a long standoff with Gov. Kim Reynolds over rules requiring at least 50 percent in-person learning.

But before the district follows through and sends students back to school buildings, pandemic conditions in Polk County would have to meet certain metrics that the board has yet to determine.

The plan itself follows a pattern similar to many other districts across the state. Most grades would divide into two groups that attend class in-person two days per week plus every other Wednesday. Families will be given another chance to choose between in-person and all-virtual learning.

District leaders said that, depending on how virtual enrollment impacts class sizes, physical distancing won’t be guaranteed in all classrooms, particularly in high schools. Until now, that was a safety measure where the district was not willing to compromise.

Board member Rob Barron said he’s now comfortable reopening if COVID-19 cases are trending downward and the right precautions are taken inside schools.

“We can do this,” Barron said. “I know that we’re taking on risk, and we’re going to take on risk no matter what the metrics are when we come back.”

The current target dates approved by the DMPS board to resume in-person classes are:

  • October 12, Pre-K
  • October 19, Grades K-5
  • October 26, Grades 6-8
  • November 10, Grades 9-12

Board member Teree Caldwell-Johnson was the one vote against the plan. She wants a faster change because she said the district is tallying up virtual days that don’t count toward its academic calendar. She said the district can’t afford to make them up.

“We’ve got to get ahead of this,” Caldwell-Johnson said. “We can’t bury our heads in the sand and wait until the day that everything is lined up perfectly and say, ‘Okay, now we’re ready to go.’”

Supt. Thomas Ahart said he would share the updated Return-to-Learn plan with state officials Tuesday to ask how it affects the number of days that must be made up and whether students could be allowed to resume fall sports and other activities that had to be suspended when the district started the year virtually.

The school board will hold a public meeting next week with Polk County health officials to determine what coronavirus metrics to use to decide whether schools actually open on the dates that are set.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa