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Iowa Schools Line Up To Request Virtual Learning Waivers

Des Moines Public Schools custodian Joel Cruz cleans a teacher's desk in a classroom at Brubaker Elementary School, Wednesday, July 8, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. School districts that plan to reopen classrooms in the fall are wrestling with whether to require teachers and students to wear face masks. In Iowa, among other places, where Democratic-leaning cities like Des Moines and Iowa City have required masks to curb the spread of the coronavirus, while smaller, more conservative communities have left the decision to parents.
Charlie Neibergall
Des Moines Public Schools custodian Joel Cruz cleans a teacher's desk in a classroom last July at Brubaker Elementary School.

A growing number of Iowa school district are asking the state Department of Education to approve waivers allowing them to go virtual in response to rising COVID-19 case numbers in their counties and among students and staff.

In Waukee, the school district is asking to move three buildings to virtual learning because of trouble finding substitute teachers. Superintendent Brad Buck said there appears to be little spread of the virus in school, but absences rates are still climbing for students and teachers.

“I think what we have learned is our mitigation efforts cannot overcome four and five-thousand positive cases per day in the State of Iowa,” Buck said at a school board meeting Monday night. “I’m very concerned that we are moving into a phase where we’re going to be fully online until the end of first semester.”

On Tuesday morning, a waiver was granted for Des Moines Public Schools to move online from Nov. 16 - Nov. 30. Until then, classes will continue online and in-person as scheduled.

Some of the other districts that have submitted for or have received virtual learning waivers are:

  • Iowa City - granted a two-week virtual learning waiver
  • Ames - moving Edwards, Meeker and Sawyer elementary schools online Wednesday; asking to keep them virtual for two-weeks, also requesting to move grades pre-K through 8 online across the district
  • Cedar Rapids - remote learning starts district-wide Thursday; requesting to remain online until Nov. 30.
  • Johnston - grades 6-12 will begin online learning Wednesday, and grades pre-K-5 will go online starting Friday; requesting to stay online Nov. 16-Nov. 24
  • West Des Moines - Valley High School went online this week; requesting virtual learning district-wide Nov. 16 through Dec. 2
  • Clear Creek Amana - started all grades online this week; requesting virtual learning Nov. 11 - Nov. 23
  • Waukee - asking to move Prairieview School, Timberline School and Waukee Middle School online

The Iowa Department of Education updates which districts have been granted virtual waivers on its website.

State guidelines say that the county where a district is located should have a 14-day coronavirus infection rate of at least 15 percent before the school requests moving to virtual learning. As of midday Tuesday, 90 of Iowa’s 99 counties meet that criteria.

The student absence rate should also reach 10 percent, but Iowa Department of Education director Ann Lebo said districts do not have to wait until those marks are reached to apply for a waiver.

“These guidelines are to assist districts when they are determining when they might want to use remote instruction, but they are only guidelines,” Lebo said as part of Gov. Kim Reynolds' press conference Tuesday.

Lebo said the department has granted 24 waiver requests since the beginning of November and more are pending.

The requests to move online follow a surge in coronavirus cases statewide that has exhausted many districts’ pools of substitute teachers. That often leaves an associate or administrator to supervise a classroom while students complete lessons online or learn from their teacher remotely.

West Des Moines associate superintendent Carol Seid said the district is struggling to find substitutes to fill-in for teachers who are sick or in quarantine. On the best day last week, just 66 percent of the open spots were filled.

“Again, [it’s] an indication of the challenge we have being able to staff our buildings, our organization, appropriately,” Seid said.

Dr. Meghan Schaeffer, an epidemiologist who consults with several districts on how the pandemic is trending, reported in a presentation to the Urbandale Board of Directors that there were a total of 318 current coronavirus cases among students and staff in Des Moines metro schools as of Nov. 9.

The number of students and staff in quarantine in those districts jumped 50 percent in one week to 2,310. Schaeffer said a problem in one district can spread to another.

“There are challenges within neighboring districts with parents not being in compliance with isolation and quarantine protocols, students hosting parties perpetuating spread even across districts and a lack of mask usage which has resulted in outbreaks in several districts,” Schaeffer said.

A new emergency proclamation from Gov. Kim Reynolds taking effect Wednesday requires anyone over 2 years old to wear a mask at indoor gatherings of more than 25 people, but the order excludes school classrooms.

Even as Iowa experiences one of the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 in the county, IDOE director Lebo said the vast majority of schools continue to hold classes in-person at least part-time.

This story was last updated at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 10. We will continue to update as more information becomes available.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa