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Iowa City school board votes to start the year fully online amid COVID-19 spike in Johnson County

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The Iowa City Community School District Board of Directors voted unanimously on Saturday to start the school year with two weeks of all online instruction. The decision was made possible by a waiver freeing the district from the 50 percent in-person instruction minimum Gov. Reynolds has mandated every school district in Iowa — except for those with derecho-damaged buildings — follow.

The district had originally applied to the Iowa Department of Education (DOE) for a waiver at the end of July, but was rejected. On Wednesday evening, DOE approved a second request for a waiver, as new cases of COVID-19 spiked in Johnson County. DOE only issues waivers for two-week periods.

As School Board Director Ruthina Malone pointed out, on Monday the Iowa Department of Public Health’s official 14-day average positivity rate for COVID-19 tests in Johnson County was 9.4 percent, but by Saturday it had grown to 21.1 percent. IDPH reported another 197 cases of the virus in Johnson County during the 24-hour period ending at 10 a.m. Saturday.

More than one of the directors visibly held back tears during the emotional discussion that preceded the vote in the special meeting on Saturday morning. All of them described it as a difficult vote, because of the impact they know closing the school buildings for two weeks will have on students and families.

During the public comment section at the beginning of the meeting, approximately 20 people addressed the board. Most were high school athletes who attend district schools, and did not want schools to use the all-online format because the state’s waiver does not allow students to participate in extracurricular activities, including sports, as long as schools are offering less than 50 percent in-person instruction.

Student athletes also held a protest outside the ICCSD Educational Service Center (ESC), where the board holds in-person meetings, although Saturday’s meeting, like all school board meetings since March, was conducted via Zoom. Athletes have also emailed the directors to explain the importance not shutting down sports.

“Your passion about your sports and the impact on your life came through in every single email,” Director Lisa Williams said following the public comment period. “Your protest this morning at the ESC was impressive, and the words and those you shared with us during community comment had so much impact.”

“I would encourage you all to take your advocacy to the next level. Email, call the governor’s office, talk to the Department of Education. Tell them that these decisions should be made locally, because at this time, our hands are tied.”

As Interim Superintendent Matt Degner explained during the meeting, when athletics and other extracurricular activities resumed in June, it was up to each district to determine how best to run the programs. The district will have that authority up until it begins the new school year on Sept. 8.

Degner called the ban on extracurricular activities “one more arbitrary guidance to limit local solutions to our problems.” The district and the Iowa State Education Association are suing the state to have the power to make decisions, such as whether to have sports or what instructional model to use in the classroom, returned to local school boards. The first hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 3.

But not all of the 227 emails about whether to use all online instruction Williams received over the last two days were as impressive as the ones from the student athletes.

“It is disheartening for me to see so many members of our community display a lack of empathy for the teachers and staff of this school district,” she said.

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Williams said those emails were surprising because she knew some of those people were active in the PTO and otherwise supportive of teachers and school staff.

Malone, whose husband teaches art in the district, also talked about the emails pushing for in-person instruction and suggesting that teachers were favoring online instruction not for health and safety reasons, but because it is somehow easier.

“I had a discussion with my husband, he does not want to start online,” she said. “People say teachers don’t want to work, online is easy. Please talk to a teacher who has to do this. They don’t want to do online.”

Malone said her husband’s experience demonstrates the challenges teachers of subjects like art face using Zoom for instruction.

“He’s trying to figure out how to keep his kids engaged,” she said. “He’s raising money to make sure our kids have the supplies they need.”

But even knowing those challenges, and sympathizing with the students and parents who want to use the district’s hybrid instructional model, which satisfies the governor’s 50 percent in-person mandate and would allow high school sports to continue, Malone said the spread of COVID-19 in the county was just too high to open the school buildings on Sept. 8.

“I’m not willing to send kids into our buildings — or our staff or our teachers — to say, ‘but at least we tried,’” Malone said. “I can’t do that.”

She did ask Degner about plans to bring students with special instructional needs back to the classroom as soon as possible. The interim superintendent said he would have more information about those plans for the board at its regular meeting on Tuesday.

Board President Shawn Eyestone stressed that the ultimate goal is tp get to students back in the classroom, and that is the goal of the Return-to-Learn Plan approved by the board. But current circumstances do not permit that.

“We are in a position now where it just unfathomable how bad it is in our community,” he said before the vote.

The spike in COVID-19 cases in Iowa isn’t limited to Johnson County. At 10 a.m. on Saturday, IDPH reported a total of 63,112 have now tested positive for the virus, an increase of 1,081 confirmed cases since the same time on Friday. In Linn County, 21 new cases were reported.

The department also reported another 17 deaths from the virus between 10 a.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. on Saturday. The newly reported deaths, which include one resident of Linn County, bring the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 1,108.

In a statement published on its site after the vote, ICSSD informed district families about the decision to start the school year with all online instruction.

“We have been preparing for this possibility and want to assure families that this decision will not impact our ability to deliver high-quality, rigorous instruction to our students,” the district said. “The key is that we can now accomplish this without fear of jeopardizing the health of our students and staff while helping to slow the community spread of the virus.”

ICCSD will be providing additional information with families starting on Monday.


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