On Thursday, the Iowa Department of Education (DOE) rejected a request from the Iowa City Community School District to allow its schools to start the new school year with two weeks of all online instruction. In its application, ICCSD said it was concerned about the health and safety of students and staff if it began the school year with in-person instruction, because of the level of community spread of COVID-19 in Johnson County.
As part of its application, ICCSD submitted a letter from Johnson County Public Health Director Dave Koch, which explained his department agreed that online instruction was the best option “given our current local situation and assessment of many factors in Johnson County.”
“Our local surge in cases throughout July was started in and propagated by the young adult (18-24) population within the county,” Koch wrote. “Based on the results of our case investigations and contact tracing interviews we strongly believe that we will experience another, larger surge in cases as [University of Iowa] students return, and that illness will spread not only in students but throughout the community.”
Koch noted that when in-person instruction resumes at UI on Aug. 26, it “will bring several thousand students and visitors from different areas who are also experiencing surges in COVID-19 cases, and there are currently no travel restrictions or quarantine requirements upon arrival.”
ICSSD has prepared a hybrid instructional model for the coming school year that will have 50 percent of students attending in-person classes for three days and having online instruction for two days during one week, and then having three days online and two days in the classroom the following week. The other half of the student body would have online classes when the first half is in the classroom, and be in the classroom when the first half is online.
The district still hasn’t decided if pre-K to fourth-grade students will follow this alternating schedule or have all in-person instruction.
The ICCSD hybrid model satisfies Gov. Reynolds’ and DOE’s requirement that schools have at least 50 percent in-person instruction in core subjects during every two-week period.
But both the district’s administration and the ICCSD Board of Directors agreed it would be safer to start the year with all online classes.
Even in the hybrid model it will not be possible to provide the recommended social distancing in all classrooms or on school buses. And while the hybrid model reduces the number of days students must spend in school buildings, teachers and other school staff will have to be in those buildings every day schools are open.
ICCSD surveyed its teachers and other staff regarding how they feel about returning to work this fall. Slightly more than 93 percent of respondents said they would be comfortable returning to work if school were using an all-online instruction model. That number drops when people were asked about using the hybrid model, with 62.39 percent saying they felt comfortable with that model.
According to the standards released by DOE last week, 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 all online classes. Such waivers would only been good for 14 days.
The Iowa Department of Public Health has added a page listing the 14-day average positivity rate for each county to their COVID-19 information site. Johnson County has a 14-day average of 8 percent, according to IDPH.
As for the other metric DOE requires for a waiver, it is impossible for a school to have an absentee rate before the school year begins.
Most public health experts recommend schools use online distance learning when average positivity rates are higher than 5 percent. During the governor’s press conference on Tuesday, IDPH Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati explained how the metrics to qualify for a waiver from DOE were determined.
Pedati said they were based on an examination of studies and an assessment of what has occurred in other counties that have reopened schools. The high positivity rate was tailored to accommodate “our communities that have smaller populations and trying to keep in mind how those percentages translate into numbers,” she said.
A few cases in a county with a small population where little testing is being done might result in a high positivity rate. Pedati said it was important to be flexible when applying metric like an average positivity rate.
When Reynolds publicly discusses schools reopening, she focuses on smaller districts. During her press conference on Thursday, the governor highlighted the Cardinal School District, which plans to offer all in-person instruction when its schools reopen. The district serves a rural area in southeastern Iowa. The district’s superintendent, a teacher and a student’s parent all spoke during the governor’s press conference, thanking Reynolds for her leadership.
Cardinal had 1,000 students last year. ICCSD, one of the state’s largest school districts, had approximately 14,500.
Reynolds was asked during Thursday’s press conference if she would invite officials from one of the state’s large school districts to speak at one of her press conference, so she could highlight the issues those districts are facing due to COVID-19.
The governor replied to the question and also had DOE Director Ann Lebo reply as well. Neither Reynolds nor Lebo actually answered the question.
Earlier this week, Reynolds warned that if a school moves to all online instruction without receiving permission from DOE, none of those online classes will be counted as instructional time, and schools and students will have to make up that time before the end of the school year.
“School administrators may also be subject to licensure discipline,” Reynolds said.
DOE’s rejection of ICCSD’s request for a waiver came on a day when Iowa marked a grim milestone: the state’s number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths surpassed 900.
During the 24-hour period ending at 10 a.m. on Thursday, IDPH reported another 13 deaths from the virus, pushing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 906. One of the newly reported deathes was in Johnson County, bringing the total number of county residents who have died from the virus to 16. According to IDPH, Linn County has had 87 COVID-19 deaths.
Between 10 a.m. on Wednesday and 10 a.m. on Thursday, IDPH reported another 649 Iowans were confirmed as having COVID-19. The new cases increase the state’s total number of cases to 47,141.
According to IDPH, 27 Johnson County residents tested positive for the virus on Wednesday, as did 39 residents of Linn County. The daily positivity rate for Johnson County on Wednesday was 8.7 percent, and in Linn County it was 7.9 percent.
In an email to parents on Thursday to inform them DOE had rejected ICCSD’s request, Interim Superintendent Matt Degner said, “We plan to discuss our next steps with the Board during their meeting on Tuesday, August 11, 2020, and we will provide an update to families as soon as possible.”