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Iowa Lawmakers To Consider Requiring Schools To Offer Fully In-Person Learning During Pandemic

Michael Leland
IPR file
Republican leaders of the Iowa Legislature plan to advance legislation next week that would require all schools to provide an option for full-time in-person learning during the pandemic.

Republican leaders of the Iowa Legislature say they plan to advance legislation next week that would require all schools to provide an option for full-time in-person learning during the pandemic, a policy Gov. Kim Reynolds asked lawmakers to pass immediately.

Under the proposal from Iowa Senate Republicans, schools would have to provide the full-time option “no later than the second Monday” after the bill is signed into law. Districts would also have to make the option available to all families, regardless of whether they had chosen online or in-person learning in the past.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said Thursday he wants to pass the measure as soon as possible.

"To me, it’s just immoral to let our kids fall an entire year behind because of this pandemic," Whitver said. "And we have to balance safety with the desire to make sure our kids are being educated.”

Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, said if the bill passes it would force some schools to violate social distancing guidelines in classrooms. He said it could be easier for the coronavirus to spread as a result.

“If we bring students back into our classrooms that are asymptomatic, that are carrying the virus, then they’re taking it home to their families, they’re taking it home to their communities,” Beranek said on IPR’s “Talk of Iowa.”

Beranek said state lawmakers should wait until school teachers and staff are vaccinated before requiring in-person classes full-time.

According to Reynolds, teachers are now in the first tier of the next phase of COVID-19 vaccinations, which takes effect Feb. 1. But she said because of limited supplies, vaccines may not be available to all teachers before the bill is passed.

“I can’t guarantee that because I don’t know what we’re going to get on doses and it’s always subject to change,” Reynolds said in a press conference Thursday. “In the meantime we just need to do everything we can to safely and responsibly get the kids back in the classroom, and I think that we can do that.”

It's not clear exactly how many school districts are still in hybrid or fully remote learning models. But according to an ISEA review, a large majority of districts are offering 100 percent in-person learning.

Reynolds indicated that schools can use funding from the recently-passed federal relief bill to help cover the cost of acquiring additional COVID-19 tests, personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

Last summer, Reynolds announced she would require schools to provide at least 50 percent in-person instruction unless they got permission from the state to switch to all online learning.

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said this will continue to take decision-making authority away from local school boards.

"To just kind of plow ahead without getting people vaccinated at this critical moment is really frustrating," Wahls said.

The bill is scheduled for a Senate subcommittee hearing Monday at 2 p.m. Whitver said it could get a vote by the full Senate as soon as next Thursday.

Iowa House Republicans introduced a similar bill Thursday and scheduled it for a 12:30 p.m. subcommittee hearing Monday.

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said House Republicans will continue to discuss the language with the Senate and the governor.

"We're all working towards the same goal," he said.

Grassley added he also wants to pass this policy as soon as possible.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa
Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter