Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds held a press conference on COVID-19 and the state’s response at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston, Iowa on Monday, April 27, 2020. (Photo Credit: Olivia Sun/The Des Moines Register)

DES MOINES, Iowa – Gov. Kim Reynolds held a press conference on Thursday morning to announce additional criteria for online learning in response to COVID-19.

A couple of weeks ago, Reynolds announced that schools must prioritize in-person learning when they reopened.

With a growing positive case count, she laid out when schools could respond to COVID-19 by going online. 

“The fundamentals of our return to learn strategy are safety, flexibility, and parental control. This plan starts with the foundation of in-person learning in alignment with Iowa statutes, requiring that 50 percent of instruction time occurs in the classroom, and prioritizes core subjects. Schools have flexibility to meet that and other options if public health circumstances occur, making it an unattainable goal for them,” Reynolds said.

“Our plan also puts the decision on whether or not a student learns 100 percent through remote learning in the hands of parents, recognizing differences between students and families and how their student best learns or what some of their other family circumstances may be,” she added.

Reynolds pointed out that schools provide a safe learning environment for students to learn; they employ teachers and other staff and allow parents and other caregivers to work. She noted that 70 percent of married households in Iowa are duel-income households, and many single-parent families are unable to stay home if schools go entirely online. 

She noted that mounting research shows children are less likely to contract and transmit COVID-19. In Iowa, six percent of all known positive COVID-19 cases are under the age of 17. Nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 5.6 percent of all known positive cases are between the ages of 5 and 17. That age bracket has seen less than one-tenth of one percent of the COVID-19 deaths. 

She said Surgeon General Jerome Hill recommended that schools and communities with less than a 10 percent positivity rate should reopen on a 14-day rolling average positivity rate.

“Ninety-three of Iowa’s counties, including Polk, Linn, Dubuque, Scott Woodbury and others would meet that definition,” Reynolds said. 

“Children are not driving the pandemic, and transmission from students, students to students and teachers have been low with proper tools and resources. We can reopen safely protecting students, teachers, staff, and families. The vast majority of Iowa school districts had already developed plans that align with in-person instruction as the primary learning model. So we’re off to a good start and just have a few that we’re working within the state,” she stated.

Reynolds addressed why the state was releasing guidelines for schools instead of leaving the decision up to local school districts and local public health districts. 

“Most Iowans probably don’t know that the vast majority – 237 out of 327 – school districts are in multiple counties. Two of them are even in five different counties,” she explained, noting school districts would receive conflicting data and guidance from different counties. 

“That’s why I think it’s so important for us to have clear statewide guidelines, as well as continue to coordinate with our local public health partners,” Reynolds said.

Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the state epidemiologist with the Iowa Department of Public Health, reiterated what the governor said about COVID-19 in children. 

“The children here in Iowa are not the primary drivers of this pandemic. And in fact, we know that children are less likely to become infected. And when they do, they appear to have a less severe illness. Now, we’ve also seen some scientific reports coming out of other countries, looking specifically at contact tracing in school settings. And this has been done in places like France, Australia, and Ireland. And they’ve suggested that transmission in students is not as likely between each other in a school setting as it is in a household setting,” she said.

“A safe return to school is going to depend on our communities’ and families’ readiness. And this is going to include a commitment to the protective measures that we know can help slow the spread of this virus,” Pedati said. 

Those protective measures include wearing masks, practicing good hygiene, social distancing, and staying home when sick. 

Pedati said when there is a case of COVID-19 in the school, they will have to coordinate with their local public health department for contact tracing, and those exposed will have to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Dr. Ann Lebo, director of the Iowa Department of Education, said the department recommends a hybrid learning environment that includes virtual learning and on-site learning when their county experiences transmission rates of 15 to 20 percent. She said when a school district experiences a ten percent absenteeism rate may request to go primarily online for 14 days. She also said that if their county experiences a higher than 20 percent positivity rate, school districts can also ask to go primarily online for 14 days. 

She shared how different school districts are approaching reopening. 

“The Waukee Community School District is surveying their families and giving them the choice of returning to face to face learning or fully remote learning. For those students who do return in person, multiple mitigation strategies will be in place to protect students, teachers, and staff,” Lebo said.

“The Clinton Community School District is prioritizing in-person learning for grades K through five. They will use a hybrid model for upper-grade level students, limiting the number of students and buildings at one time, and the district has embedded into its school calendar, several opportunities to work one on one with struggling students,” she shared.

“Central City High School in Linn County is primarily returning in person but doing small group homerooms. All students will stay in the same classroom throughout the day and work on computers to access material for all their classes. Students will not mix with other groups, but when needed, students will have access to all teachers for questions and extra help,” she added.

Listen to the full press conference below:

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