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Iowa Schools Release Return To Learn Plans

Children draw in a classroom side-by-side pre-COVID-19.

COVID-19 rapidly displaced students from classrooms to their bedrooms this spring. Looking toward the fall, everyone is asking: how can students safely return to learn?

On today’s episode of River to River, host Ben Kieffer speaks with educators, reporters and health experts about how Iowa students may return to the classroom. Later in the hour, we hear from an expert helping track COVID-19 and a statehouse reporter who explains Iowa laws that went into effect yesterday.

IPR reporter Grant Gerlock explains that one of the many issues schools face when bringing students back to the building is space. It isn’t easy to maintain 6-feet of distance in an already crowded school, bus or cafeteria. Schools are also faced with the digital divide: not all students have the technology required for them to have equitable access to a quality education.

Des Moines Public Schools is one district that has released their plan to deal with these challenges. They are offering a fully virtual experience for families who “don’t feel comfortable sending their children back to school physically.” Superintendent Thomas Ahart says he anticipates that around 10 percent of students will select the fully virtual model.

Students who do decide to come back will experience a hybrid approach. Elementary and middle school students will be divided into 2 groups, such as “A” and “B." The “A” group will attend on Mondays and Tuesdays, Wednesday will be virtual for all students so staff can thoroughly clean and disinfect the building. Thursdays and Fridays will be when the “B” group comes to school buildings.

For high school students, Wednesdays will also be fully virtual, ninth graders will attend on Monday, 10th graders on Tuesday, 11th graders on Thursday and 12th graders on Friday. “It will feel different for sure, especially for our younger ones. We will have fewer than half the number of students that we had in a classroom last year,” Ahart says.

Teachers who cannot safely return to the classroom will most likely work with students who choose to learn completely remotely.

In spite of the Iowa Department of Education recommending against face masks, the Des Moines Public Schools are requiring them. “All we are trying to do is follow best practice as much as is possible,” Ahart says. “If we don’t require face coverings, then we aren’t doing the single most important step we can take to mitigate the spread of the virus.”

Fred Gerr, professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa explains that although younger people tend to have fewer complications and milder symptoms, this is not a sound reason to lower any precautions with young people. “Not all of them have milder disease, and not all of them are complication free,” he says. “There are children who get this disease and become very, very, ill.” He also explains that even children who don’t appear ill can transmit COVID-19 to the adults at home.

Although many schools have plans, even the best laid plans can change -- especially when new information about COVID-19 seems to come out every minute.

You can hear more from Gerr next week, when he appears on a University of Iowa panel discussion Friday, July 10 at 10 AM. This discussion will provide guidance on re-opening schools with public health safety in mind.


  • Grant Gerlock, Iowa Public Radio reporter
  • Thomas Ahart, superintendent, Des Moines Public Schools
  • Dr. Fred Gerr, professor of occupational and environmental health, University of Iowa
  • Lily Wang, associate professor of statistics, Iowa State University
  • Stephen Gruber-Miller, statehouse reporter, The Des Moines Register

Matthew was a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River