Gov. Reynolds: School district ‘did exactly what they needed to do’ by moving first-grade class online after positive COVID-19 test

Gov. Kim Reynolds discusses schools and Monday’s devastating derecho on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. — video still

Gov. Kim Reynolds had planned to have the superintendent of the Indianola Community School District speak at her press conference on Tuesday, so he could explain what the district has done since its Irving Elementary School confirmed a case of COVID-19 four days after starting classes, but postponed the superintendent’s appearance to have more time to address the damage from Monday’s derecho.

Superintendent Art Satoff will speak at Thursday’s press conference instead, Reynolds said.

“They did exactly what they needed to do,” the governor said, referring to the district’s decision to have a first-grade class switch to all online instruction for two weeks after the positive test. “And we know that this is going to be part of the process as long as we have COVID in the state of Iowa.”

Although much of the press conference focused on storm damage, reporters did ask Reynolds questions about school districts that have wanted to start the year with online instruction for two weeks in order to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The Iowa Department of Education (DOE) would have to give permission to a district to offer less than 50 percent in-person instruction or that district will face penalties, including DOE refusing to give students credit for instructional hours when a school has less than 50 percent in-person instruction.

Reynolds said discussions are still ongoing between DOE and some of the state’s largest school districts, including the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD).

“The talks are going well,” the governor said. “I really want to commend [DOE Director Ann Lebo’s] team and the Department of Education [for] really providing the outreach and working with the school districts to find a solution to meet what we believe the statute requires. And so it’s my understanding those conversations are going really well.”

Last Thursday, DOE rejected ICCSD’s request for a waiver to start the school year with two weeks of online instruction.

During its Aug. 3 meeting, the Urbandale School District Board of Directors voted unanimously to continue using all online instruction at its Rolling Green Elementary School, a year-round school, even though DOE had rejected the district’s request for a waiver to do so. Directors and district official felt it was too risky to use in-person instruction given the amount of community spread in Polk County, where Rolling Green is located.

Reynolds criticized Urbandale’s decision during her press conferences last week, and warned the district it would face consequences if it did not comply with DOE standards.

“I want to be very clear,” Reynolds said on Aug. 4. “Schools that choose not to return to school for at least 50 percent in-person instruction are not defying me, they’re defying the law.”

At its meeting on Monday, the Urbandale school board voted four to three to switch from online instruction at Rolling Green to a hybrid model that meets DOE’s 50 percent in-person instruction requirement.

“I’m really nervous about how this is going to work out, and this is a lot of trust I have in you guys,” board member Judy Downs said before voting in favor of the hybrid model, the Des Moines Register reported.

Board member Sarah Schmitz criticized her fellow directors for taking the vote during an online meeting.

“We damn well should have made this decision face to face,” she said. “Because for us to sit here virtually, making a decision to send our staff back, is highly hypocritical of us.”

The ICCSD Board of Directors was scheduled to discuss its next steps after DOE rejected its waiver request at meeting on Tuesday, but that meeting was cancelled due to power and internet outages caused by Monday’s storm.

The storm also caused a drop in the number of COVID-19 tests conducted on Monday, and damaged three Test Iowa sites. Reynolds said during her press conference work was underway to reopen the damaged Test Iowa sites in Cedar Rapids, Marshalltown and Davenport.

At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported another 182 Iowans had been confirmed as having COVID-19 during the previous 24 hours. The newly reported cases bring the total number of Iowans who have tested positive for the virus to 49,182.

The department also reported another four deaths, increasing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 935.

According to IDPH, six more residents of Johnson County tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, as did 22 residents of Linn County. The positivity rate for the 118 tests reported by IDPH in Johnson County on Monday was 7.8 percent. In Linn County, there was an 11.3 percent positivity rate for its 194 cases.

The IDPH 14-day average positivity rate for Johnson County is 8 percent, and in Linn County it is 9 percent.

DOE standards state that a school district should not apply for a waiver to offer less than 50 percent in-person instruction until its county has a 14-day positivity-rate average of 15 percent or greater. Most public health experts advise that school districts switch to online instruction if their average positivity rate is higher than 5 percent.

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