Gov. Reynolds sharply limits ability of schools to respond to COVID-19

Gov. Reynolds discusses the reopening of schools on July 30, 2020. — video still

During a press conference on Thursday, Gov. Kim Reynolds unveiled the standards her administration is imposing on school districts as those districts begin a new school year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

School districts are expected to hold on-site classes until their county sees a 14-day rolling average positivity rate of 15 percent, and there is a 10 percent absenteeism rate among students. When that threshold is met, districts can switch schools to a hybrid model that involves a combination of on-site and online learning.

At that point, a district can also apply to the Iowa Department of Education (DOE) for permission to move to all online learning for a single school or the entire district for 14 days.

A county’s positivity rate is the percentage of its residents tested that are confirmed as having COVID-19.

There is no threshold that would require districts to automatically transition to all online learning. Even if the 14-day rolling average of a county’s positivity rate goes above 20 percent, and the county is experiencing “healthcare resource capacity concerns” — which DOE lists as the most severe category of virus spread — a district will have to request permission to go to all online instruction.

According to published guidance from DOE, if a district applies for permission, “You will receive a response within 48 hours, not including weekends.”

The World Health Organization recommends that communities not move forward with reopening activities until the average daily positivity rate is 5 percent or lower. Last week, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said he thought it was important for students to resume in-person classes, but added that exceptions should be made in communities where the positivity rate is above 5 percent. Redfield called communities with positivity rates above 5 percent “hot spots.”

Reynolds cited Redfield’s support for in-person instruction during her prepared remarks on Thursday. She did not mention Redfield’s recommendation regarding exemptions.

Both the Iowa City Community School District and the Cedar Rapids Community School District were relying heavily on the use of their hybrid models for the upcoming school year. Those models would have the youngest students attend classes five days a week, but divide older students into A and B groups, each representing about half the student body. One group attends school in-person three days and online learning for the remaining two days during one week, while the other group follows the opposite schedule. The two groups would alternate schedules, so both would have five days of in-person instruction during a two-week period.

The districts decided to use those hybrid models because, even though they have undertaken mitigation efforts and have plans for more, neither believed it was possible to provide adequate social distancing in many of their school buildings or on their school buses if all students must attend every day.

According to the guidance presented at the governor’s press conference and published by DOE, it seems unlikely either district will be able to start their school year in the hybrid model.

During the press conference, both Gov. Reynolds and Dr. Caitlin Pedati repeated that children are less likely to contract COVID-19, and some studies suggest they are also less likely to transmit it.

“In Iowa, children under the age of 18 make up only 6 percent of the reported positive cases,” Pedati, the medical director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, said. “So, that means the children here in Iowa are not the primary drivers of this pandemic. And in fact we know that children are less likely to become infected, and when they do, they appear to have a less severe illness.”

Reynolds said teachers would probably be the source of any problems with virus spread.

“Where we’re going to have problems is going to be from educator to educator, or from adults… When teachers are getting together and cohorting, that’s when we really have to think about, because that’s where the spread is more likely to occur,” the governor said.

Reynolds and Pedati also said the state would be providing assistance to districts to help prevent or contain virus spread.

Pedati said IDPH and DOE were working on plans for contact tracing.

“It’s also important to know that there’s a plan to develop a plan for when we identify a case in a school setting,” Pedati said. “Which we expect will happen.”

The doctor said it is also important for schools and their wider communities to maintain a “commitment to the protective measures we know can help slow the spread of this virus.” One of the measures she cited was “consistent use of cloth face coverings when in public.”

Reynolds has consistently opposed mandating face coverings, although she had repeatedly said people should wear them in situations where they cannot engage in proper social distancing.

A reporter asked the governor why she won’t mandate face coverings in schools.

“I think there are a lot of different ways we can approach that,” Reynolds said. “And we’ve not told schools not to wear masks.”

Following the governor’s press conference, Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), which represents more than 34,000 educators in the state, released a statement calling Reynolds’ approach to school reopening “outlandish.”

The ISEA rejects Governor Reynolds outlandish notion of what constitutes minimal, moderate and uncontrollable spread of COVID-19. Instead, we will continue to listen to world health experts, scientists and specialists who tell us that counties with extensive testing should be at a positivity of 5% or lower before it’s safe to reopen schools.

Most importantly we are not just talking about numbers as we look at this decision. We are talking about children’s lives and the lives of the educators, school employees and the families who are affected. If in fact a 20% positivity rate is the point at which our schools can ask for permission to close school buildings for 14 days, that means that 1 in 5 Iowans will need to test positive and perhaps experience severe to drastic consequence’s before we can take the steps necessary to protect the health and safety of our students, educators, and school communities.

We can do better.

Reynolds said on Thursday she believes most of the anxiety regarding the reopening of schools is due to worry over the unknown. She pointed out that parents who don’t want to send their children back into the classroom have the option of choosing an online continuous learning program for the school year. But the governor said she consider in-person instruction to the most beneficial experience for students.

“We need to keep our next generation learning, growing and preparing for a bright future. And online learning is an essential component of that, but it can’t make up for the critical role our schools play in the development social and emotional skills that our children rely on.”

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