A hearing has been scheduled for the lawsuit challenging Gov. Kim Reynolds’ authority to order schools to have 50 percent in-person instruction even if local school boards believe COVID-19 conditions make that too dangerous.
The Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) and the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), which represents more than 30,000 educators in the state, filed the lawsuit in Johnson County District Court on Wednesday.
The hearing is scheduled for Sept. 3, five days before classes will begin for ICCSD’s 2020-21 school year. The judge will hear arguments regarding whether a temporary injunction should be granted.
After consulting with public health experts, the ICCSD Board of Directors voted unanimously on July 14 to begin the school year with all online instruction due to a surge in COVID-19 cases in Johnson County during June and July, and concerns that the return of students to the University of Iowa may lead to even greater spread of the virus. Two weeks after the vote, Gov. Reynolds announced that school districts would be expected to offer at least 50 percent in-person instruction during every two-week period classes are in session, unless a county was experiencing a 14-day average positivity average in its COVID-19 tests of 15 percent or higher and a school had an absentee rate of at least 10 percent.
The WHO and the CDC both recommend schools use online instruction if a community’s average test positivity rate is above 5 percent.
School districts must apply for a waiver from the Iowa Department of Education (DOE) in order to offer less than 50 percent in-person instruction. The waivers are only good for two weeks.
ICCSD’s application for a waiver to begin the school year with two weeks of online instruction was rejected on Aug. 8, even though application had the full support of the Johnson County Department of Public Health.
Even after the Iowa Department of Public Health made changes to its data reporting system on Wednesday to correct a problem that led to the department misreporting COVID-19 test results for months—a problem the department knew about for weeks without informing the public it was publishing incorrect test results—there was still a sharp increase in the number of new cases of the virus reported in Johnson County.
At 10 a.m. on Saturday, IDPH reported another 67 residents of Johnson County had tested positive for COVID-19 during the previous 24 hours. The department also reported another 33 confirmed cases in Linn County during that same time period.
Linn County schools will be able to begin the school year with all online instruction due to damage done to buildings by the Aug. 10 derecho.
Currently, ICCSD plans to begin classes in a hybrid model that combines in-person and online instruction and meets the governor’s 50 percent mandate.
Even if the judge grants the injunction, it’s possible ICCSD may continue with the hybrid model, assuming local COVID-19 conditions allow schools to use that model safely.
“I want to be clear that [the decision to join the lawsuit is] not saying, ‘we’re suing so we can start completely online,’ or ‘we’re suing to have this put in place or that put in place,’” ICCSD Board President Shawn Eyestone said before the board voted unanimously on Tuesday to join ISEA in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, Eyestone said, is about “how we best can make decisions locally.”
On Friday, Des Moines Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, announced it will file its own lawsuit against Reynolds’ 50 percent mandate. The district’s application for a waiver to start its year with online classes was rejected on Thursday.
So far, DOE has not approved any waiver requests for the 2020-21 school year.
On Saturday, IDPH reported another 843 cases of COVID-19 statewide had been confirmed during the 24 hour period ending at 10 a.m., bringing the total number of Iowans who tested positive to 55,496.
During the same time period, the department reported another 11 deaths from the virus. Iowa’s COVID-19 death toll stands at 1,030.