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School Officials Answer Questions About Returning To Class During The Pandemic

Des Moines Public Schools headquarters.
Michael Leland
IPR file photo
Des Moines Public Schools challenged state Return to Learn guidelines last year, but has not announced any legal challenge against a state ban on mask mandates passed in May.

Des Moines Public Schools administrators say they plan to create a culture that follows CDC guidelines on wearing masks in classrooms, but state law stops them from being required.

At a Des Moines Public Schools online town hall Tuesday night, school officials talked about how the state’s largest district will hold classes amid a new surge of coronavirus cases.

Supt. Thomas Ahart said many of more than 160 questions submitted asked whether the district will challenge a state law stopping schools from requiring masks.

In a statement he shared from the Des Moines school board, Ahart said if the board were to take any legal action it would be decided “in a public setting with community input.”

Ahart said the district will ask teachers to demonstrate a culture of mask wearing, although the law places limits on that, too.

“We cannot require staff to wear masks but we’re encouraging, in the strongest legal language, to model this practice,” Ahart said. “So I’m confident that the vast majority of our staff will be modeling best practice for our students.”

Ahart said DMPS is looking into possible incentives to promote vaccinations and mask wearing for students and staff. He added that DMPS will pursue state funding to make coronavirus tests available in schools but will not conduct surveillance testing to monitor infection levels across the district.

Ahart read and responded to a list of questions he said were submitted for the town hall that questioned the science behind the coronavirus vaccines and whether the virus itself is real.

"I am not being paid to continue the propaganda of the pandemic as the questioner puts it," Ahart said. "In fact, I've taken significant personal risk to follow public health guidance that good science has determined is incontrovertible."

The Iowa Board of Educational Examiners issued a letter of reprimand against Ahart because DMPS started the 2020 school year online in violation of state guidelines.

DMPS health director Melissa Abbott said many parents have been asking how schools will respond if there is an outbreak of the coronavirus.

When the 2020 school year started, school districts could ask state officials to approve a switch to all-virtual learning if the local county reached a high infection rate. This year, districts have been told to report to the state when more than 10 percent of students in a school are absent.

Abbott said it is unclear what options the district would have at that point. She said the response will be guided by input from state health and education officials and the Polk County Department of Health.

“At this particular time we don’t have a threshold about when a classroom or a school would be closed,” Abbott said. “And that is something that I, that Des Moines Public Schools, can’t make independently.”

With the first day of school just one week away on August 25th, the district’s virtual high school is full and has a waiting list, but there is still space in the virtual middle school.

There is no limit to the number of elementary students who can enroll for a new self-paced online program the district is providing through the company Edgenuity.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa