Denial is not a strategy for opening Iowa schools

Bruce Lear on what’s missing and what’s problematic in the Iowa Department of Education’s new guidelines for schools to reopen in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. -promoted by Laura Belin

Americans love to pretend. We dress up like our favorite character on Halloween. We tell our children about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But we can’t afford to pretend when a pandemic is sweeping across the globe.

The Iowa Department of Education issued guidance on June 25 for returning to school. The document pretends everything is normal, and offers only political guidance for the reopening of Iowa’s public schools.

Granted, there is no magic formula for reopening. This pandemic is like nothing we’ve experienced since 1918. Still, Iowans expect common sense and incorporating advice from medical professionals, instead of relying on denial as a strategy, as the state’s guidelines offer.

It’s no secret that Governor Kim Reynolds has chosen to open Iowa wide, even though there are massive COVID-19 flare-ups that she has all but ignored.  While that is certainly the governor’s political prerogative, her viewpoint should not unduly influence the department that’s charged with opening schools safely.

A couple of thoughts about what’s missing from these recommendations:

First, there is no recommendation that requires districts to involved educators in these decisions.  Districts need to listen to educators and parents about what will work.  Without educator input throughout the reopening process, the process will be top down and it will fail.

Second, there is no mention of additional school funding earmarked for COVID-19 mitigation. This is critical for any effort in social distancing by dividing classes, and for supplying the needed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

I also have some specific concerns about what’s in the guidelines. The third paragraph states, “Schools must put plans in place to protect staff and students at high risk of developing illness.”

All staff and students need to be protected and need to be a part of any reopening plan.

The guidelines indicate there should be no one screening for symptoms at the door. I completely understand that one symptom cannot be the determining factor. But a fever is a leading indicator.

Students and staff should at minimum have temperatures taken and be asked a series of questions before entering the building. The ideal person to evaluate multiple symptoms would be the school nurse. Tragically, because of the lack of funding and because a lack of commitment to health care, another person will need to be trained to spot symptoms at the door. Not attempting to screen is malpractice.

The guidance states, “Requiring face coverings for all staff and students is not recommended. Allow the personal use of cloth face coverings by staff and students.” While masks for younger students might indeed be a discipline problem, face shields and masks for the staff and for older students could stop the community spread. Face shields provided by the districts would provide better protection and also would accommodate students who are hearing impaired.

Each district will need to discuss the discipline protocol and use a procedure that works best for the particular school district. Completely ruling out mandatory face protection is making masks about ideology instead of safety. That’s wrong.

The guidelines warn about medical confidentiality. Yes, districts will walk a tightrope between federal regulations regarding medical privacy and the right to know. Districts must have a way to contact trace for both students and staff. Yet the guidance says little about contact tracing.

The department calls for providing appropriate PPE “for employees who have a medium- to high-risk of exposure or as determined by their job-related tasks.” All educators should be receive PPE funded by the districts.

Social distancing will be a problem, but the guidance needs to recommend it whenever it is possible to create. It is not enough to simply dismiss it as impossible. (“Schools may not be able to guarantee that physical distancing can be met in all school settings throughout the entire school day, during school activities, or with transportation.”)

Promoting good hand washing and other behaviors through signage won’t hurt, but that is a cosmetic step at best. Staff will need to train and supervise hand washing with younger students, especially students with disabilities.

The department’s document speaks of “a general framework for routine cleaning practices of facilities, high touch surface areas.” There needs to be a comprehensive cleaning plan, with strict protocols.

The reopening of schools is a time when Iowa can pave the way by listening to scientists instead of politicians and using some of our good old Midwestern common sense instead of the Trump/Reynolds magical thinking.

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. He was a teacher for eleven years and a regional director for Iowa State Education Association the last 27 years until retiring. 

Editor’s note from Laura Belin: The Iowa State Education Association released the following statement from the union’s President Mike Beranek.

“We are deeply disappointed with the Iowa Department of [Public] Health and the Iowa Department of Education Reopening Guidance for Schools issued June 25, 2020. The ISEA believes a school district reopening model must ensure the health and safety of students and staff and prioritize long term strategies on student learning and educational equity.

The Iowa Department of Education’s reopening guidance is inconsistent with CDC Guidance, common sense and good public policy and we cannot recommend support.

Instead, the ISEA supports the National Education Association’s guidance entitled “All Hands on Deck: Initial Guidance Regarding Reopening School Buildings.” The National Education Association worked with educators, researchers and health officials and built guidance based on four basic principles – health expertise, educator voice, access to protection, and equity – the document lays out what schools need to do to prepare for reopening, and how schools can make their reopening succeed far beyond the first few weeks of the new school year.

The challenges are formidable, but All Hands on Deck underscores the opportunity to learn from the past several months and pinpoints specific actions school districts can take to promote health, safety and equity in our schools.

Our students and our staff deserve nothing less than our full and focused attention to their health and safety. We urge local school districts to act responsibly and protect those in your care. We call on school districts to create your own guidelines mandating face coverings, physical distancing and other safety protocols.

The ISEA will continue to fight hard to ensure Iowa’s students and educators receive the protection they deserve”.

UPDATE from Laura Belin: The Des Moines Public Schools, Iowa’s largest school district by far, confirmed on June 26 that it intends to require face coverings for all staff and students.

The Department of Education released the following statement after 5:00 pm on June 26.

Statement from the Iowa Department of Education on Reopening Guidance for Schools

DES MOINES — The Iowa Department of Education, in collaboration with the Iowa Department of Public Health, has developed reopening guidance that takes into account 327 school districts and 119 accredited nonpublic schools, all with different circumstances; and the individual needs of more than 550,000 schoolchildren as well as teachers and other school staff in our state.

The Department of Education acknowledges that the reopening guidance released Thursday, June 25, needs further clarification, and will release additional information in the near future as well as health and safety measures for teachers to use to assist students and families. An example of the health and safety work we have already delivered for schools to use in their Return-to-Learn work is available here. This is a sample of materials available to schools that helps teach students about mitigation strategies such as handwashing and distancing from others.

We recognize that face masks can be an important tool to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The Department of Education and the Iowa Department of Public Health do not recommend that districts and nonpublic schools require masks for all students and staff because of the considerable implications for such a policy. However, schools may decide to require masks based on their individual situations and data.

The Iowa Department of Education will continue to rely on the expertise of the Iowa Department of Public Health to support schools and communities during this reopening process to ensure all students and families can return to school safely.

The Iowa State Education Association responded to the latest department statement with these comments from President Beranek:

The School Reopening Guidance released by the Department of Education, in partnership with the Department of Public Health, on June 25, 2020, threatened the health and safety of Iowa students, educators and school staff. As a result, the backlash by many Iowans was loud and clear. The Department of Education needs to come up with guidance based on four basic principles – health expertise, educator voice, access to protection and equity.

Students and educators deserve our protection and the Department of Education and Department of Public Health have done a disservice in releasing deficient guidance. They must do better.

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  • There is a way

    Yes, you can mitigate distancing in school, not ideally but it can be done.

    For example, we could eliminate rank-and-file rows and space desks around the room (learning in the round).

    Instead of having everyone change classes at once and cramming hallways with potential virus carriers, it could be done classroom by classroom. Yes, this will extend the school day, but isn’t that worth it to help ensure good health?

    Principals can work with teachers, students and parents to generate ideas to make this difficult situation function without torpedoing education and wrecking safety.