Gov. Reynolds signs bill requiring all schools to offer 100% in-person instruction regardless of COVID-19 conditions

Video still of Gov. Kim Reynolds joining supporters in a round of applause after she signed SF 160 into law, Jan. 29, 2021.

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill on Friday morning that will require all school districts to provide 100 percent in-person instruction to any student whose parents request it, regardless of its possible impact on the spread of COVID-19 in a school or a community.

“It’s time to put local control into the hands of parents, where it belongs, so that they can choose what’s best for their children,” Reynolds said before signing SF 160 (formerly SSB 1064) into law.

A small group of supporters and a few children gathered around the governor for the signing ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol. Everyone except the governor was wearing a face mask. Reynolds has chosen not require schools mandate face masks, and has exempted schools from the limited mask mandate she established in November for most buildings open to the public.

Face masks are not required in the Capitol Building. Republicans leaders of the Iowa House and Iowa Senate said they decided not to require lawmakers, staff or visitors to wear masks in the building because they believe a mask mandate will be impossible to enforce.

(On Thursday, the chief clerk of the Iowa House informed members that a person “associated with” the chamber had tested positive for COVID-19, the second person to do so this month. Under a rule established by the Republican leaders of the Iowa Legislature, lawmakers and staff are not required to inform anyone if they test positive, but may do so voluntarily.)

This is the first bill the governor has signed into law during the 2021 legislative session. Reynolds cited legislation to override the choice of some school districts to use a hybrid model of instruction as a top priority in her Condition of State speech on Jan. 12. Some local school boards adopted the hybrid model, which combines at least 50 percent in-person instruction with online instruction, to limit the number of people in school buildings at any one time in order to facilitate social distancing and mitigate virus spread.

Under rules created by the Iowa Department of Education, at least 50 percent in-person instruction was required at all Iowa schools, unless the district received a waiver due a severe spike in COVID-19 cases in its county.

Republican leaders in the Iowa Legislature moved the bill quickly in a series of party-line votes, with Democrats opposing it. The bill was taken up by subcommittees on Monday, and received its final approval on Thursday night.

“I believe that parents are smart,” Sen. Brad Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale, said during the floor debate on Thursday. “I believe parents know what’s best for their kids.”

Zaun, who served as the bill’s manager in the Senate, said “our kids are falling behind” because they are not receiving all in-person instruction.

“We want kids back in school, but we want it done safely,” Sen. Rob Hogg, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids, said. “It is not being done safely now. And this bill will make it worse.”

The WHO and the CDC recommend that schools don’t resume in-person instruction until an area has a 14-day positivity average of 5 percent or lower in its COVID-19 tests. According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, only three counties — Emmet, Greene and Poweshiek — had 14-day averages below 5 percent. Six of Iowa’s 99 counties had 14-day averages between 5 and 6 percent.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom was blunt in his assessment of the bill.

“This bill is nothing more than Gov. Reynolds settling a political score with large urban school districts that disagreed with her,” the Iowa City Democrat said during the floor debate.

Democrats proposed several changes to the bill, including one that would have mandated schools follow federal guidelines on face coverings, social distancing and proper ventilation. The Republican majority in the Senate rejected all the proposals.

The bill passed the Senate, 29-18, with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats opposing it. It was sent to the House, which also passed it on Thursday night. The vote in the House was 59-39. One Democrat, Rep. Wes Breckenridge of Newton, joined all the chamber’s Republicans in voting for the bill.

The Iowa City Community School District is currently using a hybrid instructional model. In an email to the Press-Citizen earlier this week, ICCSD spokesperson Kristin Pedersen said the district would stop using the hybrid model if SF 160 became law, because the district doesn’t have enough teachers to fully staff two different models of in-person instruction.

Other school districts that have been using a hybrid model will also stop doing do, due the practical difficulties of offering both it and the all in-person instruction mandated by SF 160.

In her email to the Press-Citizen, Pedersen noted that “bringing back students on campus five days a week hinders the district’s ability to maintain the health and safety protocols currently in place.”

Starting Monday, teachers and staff at the PreK-12 schools will become eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as part of Tier 1 of Phase 1B of IDPH’s vaccination plan. But during the ICCSD Board of Directors meeting on Tuesday, Superintendent Matt Degner cautioned that the state’s limited supply of vaccine means getting teachers and staff vaccinated will “be a long process.”

“We really need to temper expectations around the vaccine,” Degner said. He explained, “we’re looking at several weeks and months to work through our 2,500 employees and staff members that we have on the list.”

The requirement to provide 100 percent in-person instruction for any student whose parents request it that Gov. Reynolds signed into law on Friday goes into effect on Monday, Feb. 15.

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