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Iowa Sees Pressure To Reopen Schools, But Safety Issues Persist

02042021Lincoln High Sign.jpg
Clay Masters
/
IPR
Following a bill signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, parents at Des Moines Public Schools will have the option to send their kids to school fully in-person or keep them home for online learning. DMPS had been offering a hybrid model to meet state requirements. The change begins on Feb. 15.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has mandated that all schools in the state offer families the option of on-campus school days starting on Feb. 15.

High school senior River Wise says some of the things he misses about being in school surprise him.

“I miss being bumped around in the hallways, I miss being bumped around trying to squeeze my way through class,” Wise says with a masked laugh. “Just little things like that.”

Wise is a student at Lincoln High School on the south side of Des Moines. He’s been learning from home since the pandemic began. He’s normally an active student. He’s a tenor in the choir and involved in theater. But he’s opted to learn from home because he doesn’t want to risk get COVID-19 or getting infected and bringing it home.

Wise has the option to go back to those familiar hallways on Feb. 15 but he’ll stick with online classes. Other students at Lincoln High will be returning fully.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has mandated that all schools in the state offer families the option of on-campus school days starting on Feb. 15. Some districts, like Des Moines Public Schools, can’t guarantee that students will be safe from the coronavirus.

Teachers at Lincoln High are preparing for larger class sizes.

“We’ve given [teachers] flexibility to determine what their spaces look like,” says Lincoln High Associate Principal Qynne Kelly. “Essentially, in most our classes now moving forward it’s going to be virtually impossible to distance them at all starting Feb. 15.”

The move to force school districts to offer fully in-person classes follows a trend of less stringent COVID-19 prevention efforts in Iowa. Reynolds, a Republican, has been reluctant to embrace mandates. There is a set of rules for masking here that health experts have called insufficient, restaurants and bars have mostly remained open, and so have most schools in the state.

Gov. Kim Reynolds signs SF 160, a law opening schools full-time during the coronavirus pandemic.
Grant Gerlock
Gov. Kim Reynolds signs SF 160, a law opening schools full-time during the coronavirus pandemic.

Reynolds has allowed schools to offer a hybrid plan where 50 percent of their instruction had to be in-person and the other half could be online. But she made returning students to the classroom full-time a priority when she delivered her Condition of the State address in January. The GOP-controlled legislature was swift in getting her a bill to sign.

“It’s unconscionable to think about their social-emotional well-being and to think to not have access to behavioral health,” Reynolds said after signing the bill on Jan. 29. “We have a responsibility to make sure these kids have a safe environment to learn in.”

Now, all school districts will have the option to send their kids to school or have them learn completely online.

Kate Casaletto lives in Coralville. Her first-grader has been in school with the hybrid model at Iowa City Community Schools. But she and her spouse have decided to send him back full-time because of the extra help he’ll receive at school.

“I agree we need to be in school. Otherwise I wouldn’t have chosen the hybrid model for him when that was an option,” Casaletto said. “I just feel like it’s being rushed.”

Casaletto thinks teachers and staff should be vaccinated before kids return. But Iowa’s vaccine distribution has been slow going. Iowa has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country: only Idaho and Missouri are behind Iowa. There’s not enough for all the teachers yet even though their in the latest phase of vaccine distribution.

Des Moines Public Schools is the state’s largest district. The district is holding a clinic with MercyOne Des Moines Medical Center to vaccinate 500 of its employees. That’s just 10 percent of DMPS’s workforce.

“If Polk County health department gave us all the vaccines that they have for the first three weeks of February, that weren’t already allocated to health systems, that wouldn’t even be enough to vaccinate all the staff in Des Moines Public Schools,” says DMPS Superintendent Thomas Ahart. “It does have a bit of a Hunger Games feel to it.”

Ahart is concerned that the darkest days of the pandemic could lie ahead. Health officials confirmed the variant of COVID-19 commonly referred to as the U.K. variant in Iowa this week. It’s a more transmissible variant.

Dr. Rossana Rosa, an infectious disease specialist with Unity Point Health, says people will have to be extra faithful to mitigation strategies with other variants out there.

“With the world as connected as, as it is, now, by the time that you've picked up the presence of a variant in your community, it has likely been circulating for a while,” Dr. Rosa said. “We do need to be able to vaccinate as many people as possible before we get in trouble with other less susceptible variants.”

While things are hardly back to normal, school districts here will have to do what they can to stay vigilant, even as students are welcomed back to buildings that aren’t set up to keep them safe.