Iowa City schools receive a second waiver, will allow for an additional two weeks of all online classes

Iowa City Community School District — Adam Burke/Little Village

The Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) received a second two-week waiver on Friday, allowing schools to offer keep offering less than 50 percent in-person instruction. District schools are currently holding all their classes online due to the spike of COVID-19 cases in Johnson County.

Following recommendations from district staff, the ICCSD Board of Directors voted on July 14 to begin the school year with all online instruction, in anticipation that COVID-19 cases would spike as University of Iowa students returned to Iowa City. The plan was to transition to a hybrid model, combining online and in-person instruction, when virus spread decreased to a level the district felt would allow it to safely have staff and a limited number of students back in classrooms.

That plan was upended three days later, when Gov. Kim Reynolds announced schools would have to provide at least 50 percent in-person instruction to students unless a district received permission from the Iowa Department of Education (DOE) to provide less in-person and more online instruction. On July 30, DOE released the standards it would use to judge such applications.

DOE said the county that a district is located in would need to have a 14-day average positivity rate in its COVID-19 tests of 15 percent or higher — a standard three times higher than the 5 percent recommended by the WHO and the CDC. A district should also wait until a school has an absentee rate of 10 percent or higher. Waivers would only be good for two weeks, DOE also announced.

ICCSD applied for a waiver to start the year with two weeks of all online instruction after DOE announced the standards, but that application was rejected on Aug. 8.

After the anticipated spike in COVID-19 occurred in Johnson County, the district applied again, and on Aug. 26 a waiver was granted. During a special meeting three days later, the ICCSD Board of Director voted unanimously to use the waiver to hold two weeks of all-online instruction when classes began on Sept. 8.

During the board’s meeting on Tuesday, interim Superintendent Matt Degner said the district was planning to immediately apply for a waiver that would cover the third and fourth week of the new school year. On Friday, DOE announced it was granting that second waiver.

In the letter granting the waiver, DOE Director Ann Lebo noted that the first waiver was granted “based of [sic] a fourteen-day positivity rate of 13.9 percent and rising,” and the second waiver request is “based on a fourteen-day positivity rate of 20.4 for Johnson County.”

“Further, our consultation with the Iowa Department of Public Health leads us to conclude that it is appropriate to grant your district’s renewed request,” Lebo wrote. “For these reasons, your request is GRANTED for a two-week period beginning on the school day after your present permission expires.”

In an email to district staff and families on Friday afternoon, Degner said, “At this time, no decision has been made to extend 100% off-site learning past September 22, 2020. The options will be reviewed and discussed during the special Board Meeting before an official decision is made. We will provide an update following the meeting that will detail the District’s plan regarding any additional days of 100% off-site learning, the potential transition to the hybrid learning mode, and the return of in-person extracurricular activities.”

DOE’s decision came on the same day the New York Times published a story on the decision by Des Moines Public Schools to continue to offer only online courses because of a surge of COVID-19 cases in Polk County, despite DOE rejecting the district’s application for a waiver.

The Times titled its story, “‘Science Versus Politics’: School District Defies Governor’s Reopening Order.”

Both Des Moines Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, and ICCSD sued DOE and the governor, seeking an injunction that would allow school districts rather than the state to make decisions regarding the health and safety of students and staff during the pandemic. Judges in both cases rejected the requests for temporary injunctions, ruling that the state was acting within its authority and districts were not facing immediate, irreparable harm. Both cases, however, are still permitted to proceed to trial.

In his email, Degner said that decision regarding how to proceed with the new waiver will be considered during the ICCSD board meeting on Sept. 15. Like all such meetings since March, it will be held via Zoom, and instructions on how to watch and participate are available at the ICCSD website.

If the district does decide to continue with all online classes, or switches to a hybrid model that uses more than 50 percent online instruction to teach students, it will not be able to have in-person extracurricular activities, including sports, during the additional two weeks. Those activities have already been suspended for the length of its original waiver.

Before the board’s vote on Aug. 29, many student athletes from the district’s high school asked the directors not to vote in favor of all online classes, because of DOE’s ban on sports and other activities at schools that have more than 50 percent online instruction.

Directors said they were moved by the stories the students shared about the importance of athletics in their lives, but did not feel it was safe to return students and staff to classrooms with COVID-19 spreading at the level it was in Iowa City.

In her letter, Lebo reminded the district that the approval of the new waiver “is conditioned upon” it canceling “in-person extracurricular activities for the duration of the two-week period.”

Degner did not address the issue of extracurricular activities in his brief email, but said, “The health of our students and staff remains the primary focus in our decision-making.”

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