Gov. Kim Reynolds orders schools to prioritize in-person class, throwing a wrench in some districts’ plans

Gov. Kim Reynolds during her July 17 press conference — KCCI livestream/screengrab

Gov. Kim Reynolds emphasized the importance of bringing kids back to school in the fall during her press conference Friday morning, shortly before she signed a new public health proclamation that says Iowa schools must prioritize in-person learning. The proclamation comes on the same day Iowa reported its highest single-day increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Reynolds said returning to school “must be based on what’s in the best interest of students and families.” She brought up some of the benefits of in-person instruction over online learning, including kids being able to socialize, be physically active, get healthy meals and access mental health and other support services.

“Those are some of the reasons why we believe that it is imperative for in-person classes and that they are a central part of the 2020-21 school year,” Reynolds said. “With COVID-19 far from over in Iowa and around the country, we know we must take deliberate steps to ensure the health and safety of students, teachers and others who work in our schools.”

Reynolds first recommended for the state’s K-12 schools to close on March 15, a week after the virus was first confirmed in the state on March 8. Almost a month later, on April 17, Reynolds announced schools would not reopen for the rest of the 2019-20 school year.

The public health proclamation provides guidance for in-person instruction, authorizes remote learning in certain circumstances, expands who is eligible to be a substitute teacher and authorizes various state departments to monitor the implementation of the proclamation. Reynolds said this guidance is to clarify and “inform local decision-making within state law.”

As part of the proclamation, Reynolds directs state agencies, school districts and other local government agencies to “take all efforts to prepare to safely welcome back students and teachers to school in-person this fall.”

“Iowa law says that in-person instruction is the presumed method of instruction for the school year,” Reynolds said during the press conference. “Schools must prioritize in-person learning for core academic subjects, including science, math, reading and social studies. The Legislature has made it clear that most schools cannot provide more than half of their instruction to any student through remote learning unless I authorize remote learning in a proclamation.”

Reynolds is referring to legislation that was unanimously passed by both chambers of the Iowa Legislature on June 13 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She signed it into law on June 29.

A portion of Section 15 in the bill reads:

Unless explicitly authorized in a proclamation of a public health disaster emergency issued by the governor pursuant to section 29C.6 and related to COVID-19, a brick-and-mortar school district or accredited nonpublic school shall not take action to provide instruction primarily through remote-learning opportunities.

Caroline Cummings, a reporter for Iowa’s News Now, received confirmation from the governor’s office that this is the section of the bill Reynolds was referring to and that Iowa Department of Education (IDOE) guidance defines “primarily” as more than 50 percent.

The DOE published updated guidance on Friday following the governor’s proclamation that says the bill “prohibits schools from providing instruction primarily through remote learning opportunities without explicit authorization by the governor in a public health disaster emergency proclamation.” Schools must have more than 50 percent of their core instruction in person unless they receive a waiver from IDOE or the Iowa Department of Public Health.

State Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said in a tweet in response to Laura Belin of Bleeding Heartland that he worked on the bill, and “I don’t think COVID came up a single time when the bill passed the Senate for the first time in February.”

The proclamation Reynolds signed on Friday does authorize a school district or accredited nonpublic school to provide instruction primarily through remote-learning, but only under four circumstances.

A. Parental consent: If a parent or guardian voluntarily selects the remote learning opportunity from among multiple options provided by the school district or nonpublic school in accordance with its Return-to-Learn Plan.

B. Approved temporary school building or district closure: If the Iowa Department of Education, in consultation with the Iowa Department of Public Health, approves of the temporary move to primarily remote learning for an entire school building or district because of public health conditions in the building or district.

C. Temporary remote learning for individual students or classrooms: If the school district or accredited nonpublic school determines, in consultation with state and local public health departments, that individual students or classrooms, but not all the students in a school building, must temporarily move to primarily remote learning because of public health conditions in the building.

D. Temporary remote learning because of inclement weather: If the school district or accredited nonpublic school determines that an entire school building or district must temporarily move to primarily remote learning because of inclement weather for a period not exceeding five consecutive school days unless the Iowa Department of Education approves of a longer period.

The proclamation also allows substitute teachers in Pre-K through 12 to teach in a classroom for any length of time by suspending limits on consecutive days someone can serve as a substitute teacher, as well as suspending limits on the number of days someone can teach in one assignment. The proclamation also expands who can serve as a substitute teacher by suspending certain education and age requirements.

“The Iowa Department of Public Safety, Iowa Department of Public Health, Iowa Department of Education, Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Iowa Department of Transportation and other participating state agencies are hereby directed to monitor the operation and implementation of this proclamation to assure the public’s health and safety,” according to the proclamation’s text.

IDOE Director Ann Lebo acknowledged during the press conference that many school districts have invested time into creating return to learn plans for the upcoming school year, but that some plans will need to be adjusted. (All Iowa school districts were required to submit a return to learn plan to the department by July 1.)

“As we prepare to return to face-to-face learning in the fall, some school plans will need adjustments, and the department will be active in providing support to those schools throughout this process,” Lebo said. “Return to learn planning is ongoing and fluid and designed to give school districts the flexibility to ensure high-quality learning continues, no matter the circumstances.”

Lebo did not mention specific school districts during her remarks, but earlier this week the Iowa City Community School District’s (ICCSD) Board of Education unanimously decided to start the school year online. Des Moines Public Schools announced on July 1 they would bring students back one to two days a week while offering online learning the other days, with the option for students to take all classes remotely if they choose.

ICCSD’s Board President Shawn Eyestone told the Gazette that the district’s plans are impacted by Reynolds’ proclamation and that both the district and the board need time to process its details.

“I was extremely frustrated watching the news conference as the Governor was touting local control, but was actively taking away local control,” Eyestone said in an email to the Gazette.

In an email to ICCSD families and staff, interim Superintendent Matt Degner said the district was “surprised by the abrupt timing of this announcement.”

“Given today’s developments, we recognize that everyone is anxious to know the District’s next steps,” Degner wrote. “We are working diligently to seek additional clarification around the new guidance that was provided today.”

Degner said the district will provide an update next week.

Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, called the proclamation “short-sighted at best” and said ISEA is “outraged that Governor Reynolds’s response … is to make it harder for school districts to move quickly to protect the health and safety of students, school employees and communities at large.” ISEA is the state’s biggest teachers union.

“We continue to stand behind our students, our teachers and our school employees,” Beranek continued in his statement. “We stand behind science and real data. We stand behind those school districts that are making good decisions about the health and safety of the people in their care. Instead of making it even harder to keep our schools safe, the governor needs to empower school districts, staff and parents to decide what is best for their kids and communities.”

"Instead of making it even harder to keep our schools safe, the governor needs to empower school districts, staff and parents to decide what is best for their kids and communities."

Posted by ISEA on Friday, July 17, 2020

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