COVID-19: ICCSD’s waiver request was denied as Reynolds plans elimination of hybrid learning; deaths surpass 4,000

John Martinek/Little Village

Late on Thursday afternoon, the Iowa Department of Education (DOE) rejected the Iowa City Community School District’s request for a waiver to switch to all online classes for two weeks.

The district applied for the waiver on Tuesday as Johnson County’s COVID-19 test positivity rate continued to increase over the last two weeks, with fears from public health officials that the spike will continue.

“Our concern over cold weather driving small or large social gatherings indoors, fatigue among the general public to stay vigilant to prevent transmission through personal mitigation measures, and the anticipated increase of cases due to the recent holiday gatherings are also factors that may increase transmission,” Johnson County Community Health Manager Sam Jarvis said in a memo supporting the district’s request submitted as part of the waiver application.

“By granting this waiver, you will be assisting in reducing the likelihood that the virus will find its way into the K~l2 school population, which in turn will keep our community safer,” Jarvis explained.

In her email rejecting ICCSD’s request, DOE Director Ann Lebo said that department standards do not require her to take into account factors that all public health officials recognize as playing important roles in driving community spread of COVID-19 that Jarvis described.

“We have considered the information you supplied from Johnson County public health authorities, expressing concern about rising infection rates as individuals move indoors and rising infection rates due to holiday gatherings,” Lebo wrote. “The guidelines set by the Department in consultation with the Iowa Department of Public Health were designed as a measure of virus activity in all situations, and are not contingent on the weather or the calendar. It is reasonable to apply them here, and their application points toward denying your district’s request.”

Lebo said Johnson County’s 14-day positivity rate and ICCSD’s absentee rate due to COVID-19 were below the rates in the DOE guidelines. In the email, she slightly misstates the county’s 14-day positivity average, saying that Jan. 6 it was “12 percent.” According to IDPH’s COVID-19 information site, the county’s 14-day positivity rate at 10 a.m. on Jan. 6 was 12.1 percent.

As of Friday at 10 a.m., the 14-day average according to IDPH was 12.7 percent. That is an almost 90 percent increase from the county’s 14-day average of 6.7 percent on Dec. 26.

DOE’s published standard calls for schools to have at least 50 percent in-person instruction, until a county’s 14-day positivity rate is at least 15 percent. That threshold is three times higher than the standard recommended by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control, both of which recommend in-person classes not be held until an area’s average positivity rate is 5 percent or lower.

In the past, DOE has granted waivers to school districts, including ICCSD, before positivity and absenteeism rates were still below the department’s published standards. But the department has rejected both waiver requests filed since the Christmas holiday.

On Dec. 28, Des Moines Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, requested a waiver, citing the same concerns ICCSD did in its application. Des Moines also had similar positivity and absentee rates as ICCSD. DOE rejected the waiver request on Dec. 30.

Currently, no school district in Iowa has a DOE waiver to offer less than 50 percent in-person instruction.

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During a news conference in early December, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced she intends to ask the Iowa Legislature to pass a law requiring school districts to return to all in-person instruction instead of using hybrid models that mix online and in-person instruction or all online instruction during the pandemic. Republicans legislative leaders have already expressed support for this idea.

On Thursday afternoon, Reynolds signed a new public health emergency proclamation, which lifted one of the last remaining mitigation measures she imposed in mid-November as Iowa was experiencing its biggest surge of virus activity. The new proclamation eliminated the limit on spectators “for sporting and recreational gatherings, including for high school-sponsored events.”

The new proclamation still requires people to wear face masks in public place if they are unable to maintain a distance of six feet from others for longer than 15 minutes. Public health experts have said that the 15-minute exemption undermines the effectiveness of the mask mandate, but prior to mid-November, Reynolds had resisted any mask requirement.

Between 10 a.m. on Monday and 10 a.m. on Friday this week, IDPH reported 6,528 more Iowans were diagnosed with COVID-19. The new cases increased the total number of confirmed cases since COVID-19 was first detected in the state on March 8 to 291,394.

On Friday, IDPH reported 4,065 deaths from the virus, an increase of 73 from the total number of COVID-19 deaths the department reported on Monday.

Iowa surpassed 4,000 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday. It took the state 201 days to reach 1,000 deaths from the virus, according to IDPH data, and another 90 days to reach 2,000. It took 28 days for Iowa to go from 3,000 reported COVID-19 deaths to reporting more than 4,000 deaths.

Even though the Reynolds administration has decided it no longer wants to receive the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s weekly report on Iowa, the report is still being produced. ABC News obtained and published the latest Iowa report, dated Jan. 3.

According to the task force, “Iowa has seen stability in new cases and an increase in test positivity.” The state is still “in the red zone for cases, indicating 101 new cases per 100,000 population.”

At the county-level, 83 of Iowa’s 99 counties are in the red zone, according to the task force. Nine counties, including Johnson and Linn, are in the orange zone, meaning they had between 51 and 100 news cases per 100,000 residents. Three counties — Iowa, Shelby and Winnebago — are in the yellow zone, with 50 or fewer new cases per 100,000 residents.