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Reynolds warns schools not to switch to all online classes without permission, criticizes COVID-19 ‘scare tactics’ used by media

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Gov. Kim Reynolds takes umbrage at a reporter’s question about whether to expect COVID-19 cases and deaths in Iowa’s school system once classes recommence. Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. — video still

“I want to be very clear,” Gov. Kim Reynolds near the beginning of her press conference on Tuesday. “Schools that choose not to return to school for at least 50 percent in-person instruction are not defying me, they’re defying the law.”

The governor said that if a school moved to all online instruction without first receiving permission from the Iowa Department of Education (DOE), none of the days in the online format would be counted as instructional time, and the schools and students would have to make up those days.

“School administrators may also be subject to licensure discipline as well, and that’s within the law,” Reynolds said later in the press conference when asked the consequences of schools switching to all online instruction without permission, even if district officials believe it is needed to protect students and staff from COVID-19.

The law the governor is referring to is a section of a bill passed this year that states “a brick-and-mortar school district or accredited nonpublic school shall not take action to provide instruction primarily through remote-learning opportunities” unless “explicitly authorized” to do so in accordance with the governor’s public health proclamation. Reynolds and the DOE interpret this section as requiring at least 50 percent of instruction in core subjects during any two week period to be conducted in-person.

The governor’s statement was prompted by the unanimous vote of the Urbandale School Board on Monday to continue only online learning at its Rolling Green Elementary School. Rolling Green, a year-round school, has been conducting classes online since the spring, but a request to continue to do so for another two weeks was rejected by DOE.

Reynolds said Tuesday that the request to continue only online classes at Rolling Green was rejected “because the current public health conditions that were outlined in the guidance simply don’t warrant it.”

The governor said she would be meeting with Urbandale school officials, and expects the district to come into compliance with DOE instruction.

The guidance Reynolds referred to was the standards published by DOE and outlined at her press conference last Thursday. According to those standards, school districts should wait until there is a 14-day positivity rate average of 15 percent or higher in their county’s COVID-19 tests and a school has an absentee rate of 10 percent or higher to request a waiver to allow 14 days of all online classes.

The Urbandale district is split between Polk and Dallas counties. As of Monday, the 14-day average positivity rate in Polk was 8 percent and in Dallas it was 7.1 percent.

The DOE standards for requesting a waiver are much higher than national public health experts recommend. CDC Dr. Robert Redfield told the Washington Post he doesn’t believe schools should offer in-person classes in communities where the average positivity rate is higher than 5 percent.

During the press conference on Tuesday, the governor was asked how the DOE arrived at the positivity and absentee thresholds it is using. Reynolds turned the question over to Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the medical director of the Iowa Department of Public Health (who recently received a 48 percent pay bump from the state). IDPH provided DOE with those metrics.

Pedati said the metrics had been determined by examining studies and what has occurred in other counties that have reopened schools. The high positivity rate was also tailored to accommodate “our communities that have smaller populations and trying to keep in mind how those percentages translate into numbers.”

A few cases in a county with small population where little testing is being done might result in a high positivity rate.

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Pedati said it was important to keep in mind “other things going on in a community. For example, other people who might be affected in other settings, such as long-term care or other congregate settings. So, we want to take all of that into consideration when we use something like a percent positivity.”

Pedati said when it comes to metrics like the one IDPH provided to DOE for its guidance, “this is a place where we need to be flexible.”

The governor said she had already “allowed a great deal of flexibility” by permitting districts to offer students the option of all online learning during the school year, an option she said could be used by “parents that are really fearful” of sending their children back into a school building.

According to Reynolds, there are just a few districts asking for permission to begin the year with all online instruction. Those districts include the Iowa City Community School District, as well as Urbandale, Des Moines Public Schools and the Ames Community School District. Reynolds said her administration is still working with those districts.

At the press conference last week, both Reynolds and DOE Director Ann Lebo pushed the idea that schools should reopen with all in-person instruction before possibly transitioning to a hybrid model. On Tuesday, Reynolds just talked about schools having to provide at least 50 percent of instruction in core subjects in an in-person format, which would allow both ICCSD and the Cedar Rapids Community School District to use the hybrid models of instruction they have developed.

Reynolds did appear to criticize hybrid models during the press conference, when she talked about schools needing to keep in mind “the whole child and everything,” including a parent’s work schedule.

“I mean, I’ve got moms that are trying to work full time and figure out what they’re going to do with the kids, and a schedule that’s Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday one week and its Tuesday and Thursday the next,” she said. “How do you start to put together some stability with those kind of arrangements?”

Reynolds was asked by a reporter if in-person instruction was worth the risk given the likelihood students will contract COVID-19 and the possibility an older teacher might die if infected with the virus.

“This is part of the problem,” Reynolds said. “The scare tactics that’s [sic] being laid out by the media.” The reporter pushed back, saying it was a legitimate question.

The governor had already complained about media coverage of her administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic during her prepared remarks.

“What we’re trying to do is to balance, so we can open safely and responsibly. And we have a obligation to these children,” Reynolds said. “A lot of times it’s the underprivileged that are already left behind, it is the kids that are struggling with disabilities, that are living in circumstances that are not very good. And those children will continue to be left behind” if schools do not mainly provide in-person instruction.

The governor did concede, “It would be naïve for us to think that at no point are we not going to see positive cases in school districts.”

Near the end of her reply, she apologized to the reporter.

Urbandale is not the only school district that has pushed back against the governor and DOE. The Waukee Community School District published a statement on Monday night saying its school board and superintendent “do not agree with the guidance stated in the Governor’s Press Conference on July 30 and released by the Iowa Department of Health (IDPH) and Department of Education (IDOE) regarding the transmission rate levels that would allow a district to transition to 100% online learning.”

According to the statement, “repeated sources of expertise indicate that a more reasonable percentage to consider closure is most frequently cited at 5% and generally ranges from 3% to 10%.”

After stating a belief that “decisions regarding the health and safety of our students, staff, and the general community are best made by those most closely associated with the decision-making,” the board and the superintendent offered “a reminder to our Governor, IDPH, and IDOE officials of what the laws of our state allow.”

Iowa Code Section 274.1 provides that public school districts in Iowa shall have exclusive jurisdiction in all school matters within their individual school district territory;

and

Iowa Code Section 279.8 authorizes local school boards to establish rules for the governance of their own respective school districts.

and

Iowa Code Section 274.3 provides that local school districts’ statutory grant of power should be broadly construed. Currently, districts are allowed to call an inclement weather day if the weather conditions present an increased risk in getting students and staff to buildings safely. It would seem that the same logic would follow for local decisions related to the pandemic.For this reason, the WCSD Board of Education, nor the Superintendent, will not be following the guidance set forth on July 30. We will not request permission from the IDOE to temporarily change our learning model should the need arise.

The Waukee statement was not discussed during the governor’s press conference.

Several times during her press conference, Reynolds said she was confident that it would be possible to safely and successfully reopen school to in-person instruction because the pandemic is much better controlled in Iowa now than it was in the spring.

“Since late June, we’ve seen positive cases gradually trend upward, but again, our current situation is not the same as it was a few months ago,” she said.

At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, IDPH was reporting at total of 45,982 Iowans had tested positive for COVID-19, an increase of 181 cases since the same time on Monday. The department also reported seven more deaths, bringing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 885.

According to IDPH, 15 residents of Johnson County and 19 residents of Linn County tested positive for the virus on Monday. IDPH’s daily positivity rate for Johnson County on Monday was 8.4 percent, and in Linn County it was 6.9 percent.

As 10 a.m. on Tuesday, IDPH reported 33,923 of the 45,982 Iowans who have tested positive for the virus are considered recovered. The department automatically considers anyone who tests positive to be recovered after 28 days, unless it is informed otherwise.


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