Iowa City schools granted waiver by state to start classes all online as Johnson County COVID-19 cases soar

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Iowa City Community School District — Adam Burke/Little Village

The Iowa City Community School District has received a waiver from the Iowa Department of Education (DOE) that will allow it to begin the year with two weeks of all online instruction. The district had applied to DOE for a waiver to exempt its schools from the 50 percent in-person instruction standard Gov. Kim Reynolds is requiring of school districts at the beginning of the month, but the department rejected it on Aug. 8.

“Based on information provided by Johnson County Public Health (JCPH) and due to the increasing COVID-19 positivity rates in our community, the District felt it was necessary to petition the State again for permission to begin the year in a 100% off-site learning model,” ICCSD Interim Supertindent Matt Degner wrote in an email to district parents and staff on Thursday. “This request was submitted yesterday and permission was granted from the State last evening.”

The ICCSD Board of Supervisors voted on July 14 to begin the school year with two weeks of all online classes due to the surge in COVID-19 cases Johnson County experienced in June and July. But after the governor imposed the 50 percent in-person instruction mandate and DOE rejected its request for a waiver, the board revised its plans and voted to start in a hybrid format combining in-person and online instruction that meets the 50 percent requirement.

Last week, the board of directors voted to join the Iowa State Education Association in a lawsuit seeking to have control of school health and safety decisions returned to local school boards. The standards DOE has created to receive a waiver require a 14-day positivity average in a county’s COVID-19 tests of 15 percent, a standard far higher than either the WHO or CDC recommend.

But as Degner noted in his email, Johnson County’s 14-day average positivity rate is now above even the DOE threshold.

At 10 a.m. on Thursday, the Iowa Department of Public Health’s official 14-day average positivity rate for Johnson County was 16.5 percent. IDPH was also reporting 334 county residents had tested positive for COVID-19 during the 24-hour period ending at 10 a.m. on Thursday.

Degner said Johnson County Public Health expects the surge in cases to increase “in the next few days” with “single day positivity rates… well above 20%. This quick but anticipated increase is due, in part, to the rise in the number of cases in individuals between the ages of 18 and 24.”

The ICCSD Board of Directors will hold a special meeting at 9 a.m. on Saturday to decide how to begin the school year in light of the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in Johnson County and the DOE waiver.

“We have been preparing for this possibility, recognizing the extremely fluid nature of this situation,” Degner said. “The health of our students and staff remains the driving force in our decision-making. “

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