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Elementary Schools Reopen As Des Moines Public Schools Moves Into Hybrid Learning

A digital sign outside of Edmunds Elementary in Des Moines encourages students to "mask up."
Michael Leland
Des Moines Public Schools has been under pressure from Gov. Kim Reynolds as well as many families within the district to reopen for at least partial in-person learning.

Des Moines Public Schools, Iowa’s largest school district, is welcoming back elementary students in-person Monday morning for the first time since classes started last month.

Reopening elementary buildings is the latest step into hybrid learning for DMPS as the district moves toward meeting state rules that require at least half of instruction to take place in-person during the coronavirus pandemic.

DMPS started the school year virtually in September, but the Iowa Department of Education never approved the plan, which means the district’s virtual days have not counted toward its required instructional days for 2020-2021.

Under pressure from Gov. Kim Reynolds and families pushing to return children to school, the Des Moines School Board decided on a plan to partially reopen schools starting with Pre-K classes last week, even as board members and public health experts expressed concern about community spread of COVID-19.

Just under 60 percent of DMPS students will attend class in-person under the district’s hybrid plan, including 8,700 students in grades K-5 who are making the switch from virtual learning this week. Families also had the option to stay in virtual learning.

Hybrid learning creates more physical distance in the classroom by dividing the students into two groups that will split the week at school. One group will attend class Monday and Tuesday while the other group studies online. On Thursday and Friday, the groups will trade places. In-person classes on Wednesday will alternate between the two.

DMPS 5th Grade teacher Courtney Starbuck will have 7-10 students in her classroom at a time. Much of the furniture in the room was moved out to allow more space between desks.

Starbuck said she is excited to see her students face-to-face and she wants them to feel welcome, but the risk of spreading the coronavirus is still in the back of her mind.

“I have to trust that the mitigation that we’ve put in place is going to be enough and I’m going to have to be extremely cautious and hope that that’s going to be okay,” Starbuck said.

Students and staff members will be required to wear masks. Some classes will eat meals in their classrooms to limit the amount of cross-contact among students.

Emily Shields, who has a son in 3rd Grade and a daughter in Kindergarten, is worried about how the shift to hybrid learning may impact community spread of COVID-19. But, she said, she’s also glad her children can learn with classmates.

“My daughter, just starting Kindergarten, hasn’t really had the opportunity to make friends yet and it’s hard for her not having that chance,” Shields said.

DMPS middle schools will switch to hybrid learning next Monday, but the district will remain out of compliance with state Return-to-Learn rules until high schools are in-person November 10.