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Des Moines Schools Will Ask To Go Virtual

A digital sign outside of Edmunds Elementary in Des Moines encourages students to "mask up."
Michael Leland
IPR file
A digital sign outside of Edmunds Elementary in Des Moines encourages students to "mask up."

Des Moines Public Schools is asking the Iowa Department of Education for a virtual learning waiver as coronavirus cases surge in Polk County. But the district is also moving ahead to bring high school students back to class in-person for the first time on Tuesday, Nov. 10.

At a special meeting Sunday night, the Des Moines School Board agreed to move all grades into virtual learning, but only if the plan is approved by state education officials. If the waiver is granted, DMPS would likely go virtual for at least two weeks starting Monday, Nov 16.

The request comes after the 14-day coronavirus infection rate for Polk County reached 16 percent Sunday, which is higher than the 15 percent required by the state to go virtual and far surpasses the district’s own metrics guiding when to adopt virtual learning.

State guidelines also call for an increase in absenteeism caused by the coronavirus. On its COVID-19 dashboard, DMPS shows that the student absence rate is 6.47 percent higher than normal for this time of year and staff absenteeism is 5.27 percent higher.

Superintendent Thomas Ahart said the district is running short of substitutes as more teachers go into quarantine.

“We do not have enough subs certainly to cover every teacher absence,” Ahart said. “Each of those absences tends to be about a two-week absence and so that stretches those resources further each day.”

Ahart planned to submit the waiver request Sunday night. The district expects to hear from IDOE as soon as Monday afternoon.

The DMPS board rejected a recommendation from Ahart to switch to virtual learning even if the waiver is denied. Instead the district will move forward with its current plan to transition all grades to hybrid learning.

Board member Dwana Bradley said she wants to keep student in class in-person as much as possible because there are signs that more virtual learning would only worsen academic disparities for students of color.

“I want to be very clear, I see these numbers. I see where things are going,” Bradley said. “I see the science saying things are upticking. But I also have this heavy burden concern of what this does to people who look like me.”

DMPS high schools will begin hybrid learning Tuesday with students divided into two groups that will split time attending class in-person and online. The change will move Des Moines schools into compliance with the state’s in-person learning rules for the first time since the start of the school year.


Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa