DES MOINES, Iowa – Gov. Kim Reynolds expressed her disappointment in the Des Moines Public School Board’s 4 to 3 decision to move toward a hybrid learning plan without a timeline for when the district will comply with state law. District Superintendent Thomas Ahart recommended that the board approve continuing the school year in its current virtual learning mode and evaluate it in six weeks.
Des Moines Public Schools implemented an entirely online return-to-learn plan in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but state law requires that at least 50 percent of their core instruction include in-person learning. Last week, Iowa’s largest school district lost its court challenge when a district court judge sided with the state.
“There is no clear sense of how or when that might happen. Only the district will determine when conditions are safe to do so using a set of metrics that appear to be designed to ensure that they don’t come back for in-person learning,” Reynolds said during a press conference on Wednesday morning.
“So to be clear, Des Moines Public School is no closer to compliance with state law than they were before last night’s vote, which is, I think, unfortunate for the students,” she added.
Reynolds pointed out that the district initially submitted a hybrid plan to the Iowa Department of Education on July 1, which included distance learning and in-person learning close to state law compliance.
“Instead of working with the Department of Education to get into compliance, the district went backwards,” she explained.
“I mentioned this last week 326 of Iowa’s 327 school districts have figured out a way to develop a strong return to learn plan that complied with state law. Those districts have been focused on getting kids safely and responsibly back to school. Really not looking for ways to avoid that, and we as we see every day, those districts are making it work,” Reynolds said.
She noted that the Ames and Iowa City school districts that received a waiver to go completely online are close to switching back to a hybrid model as the public health situation improves in their communities.
“I think where there’s a will; there’s a way. Earlier this week, a number of parents held a press conference to advocate on behalf of the district’s most vulnerable students, minorities, as well as those with disabilities and behavioral health issues. They strongly encourage the school board to move ahead swiftly to get students back in the classroom. After all, as the state’s largest school district, Des Moines Public Schools faces some of the biggest challenges, but they also face some of the biggest consequences for further inaction,” Reynolds said.
“My message to the parents of Des Moines is that we will continue fighting for you to get the kids back in the classroom again, safely, and responsibly. But now is the time for your voices to be heard. And so we encourage you to continue to do so. Every court in which our Return to Learn guidelines have been challenged has sided with the state, yet the Des Moines School Board continues to slow-walk compliance weeks into the school year at the expense of its 32,000 students. And it’s just unacceptable,” she stated.
According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, Polk County, the county where Des Moines Public Schools resides, has a 14-day positivity rate average of 7.3 percent, well below the 15 percent positivity rate required for a waiver. School districts can also apply for a waiver if they experience an absentee rate of ten percent.
Des Moines Public Schools applied for a waiver from the Iowa Department of Education but was denied on August 20. The district has not applied for a waiver since. Waivers are granted for two-week periods and can be extended if conditions warrant it.
School districts can provide distance learning for parents and guardians who voluntarily request it. Des Moines Public Schools faces an instructional time violation if they do not come into compliance. Schools have to log 180 days or 1080 hours by June 30.
“The more time that elapses, there’s more time that needs to be made up by June 30,” Dr. Ann Lebo, director of the Iowa Department of Education, said during the press conference.
She said the district would release more information in writing, but Des Moines Public Schools could face a problem at the end of the year if they cannot make that time up.
“This will be a state board matter depending on how it moves forward. Again, our goal is to help them get there. Our goal is to help them find compliance. Our goal is to help them get kids in the classroom and to learn and have the opportunities that they need. And we will continue to work with them on this. But there just continues to be some challenge here, and I’m concerned about how this is going to impact the families, the students, the educators, and everyone else involved,” Lebo added.