Iowa governor's proclamation creates confusion for schools

Randy Richardson: Governor Kim Reynolds’ latest proclamation appears to override all of the work done by school districts and strikes at the very heart of our long tradition of local control of school districts. -promoted by Laura Belin

Usually when an elected leader holds a press conference to offer additional guidance on a topic, everyone leaves with a deeper understanding of the issue. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case following Governor Kim Reynolds’ July 17 press conference on students returning to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, we got a new interpretation of a law that went into effect on July 1, which runs counter to much of the work schools have been doing.

Following the press conference, the governor released a proclamation that limits the ability of both public and private schools to offer remote learning and which loosens the current requirements on the qualifications for substitute teachers.

UNDERMINING HARD WORK BY SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Following the closure of schools last March, the governor required each school district to develop a Return to Learn Plan that would be submitted by July 1. These plans had to include details on how school districts would handle in-person learning, hybrid learning, and remote learning. Once submitted, the plans had to be approved by the state.

Several districts, including Iowa City, determined that they would start the school year using the remote learning model they had developed as part of their plan. The Des Moines Public Schools, the state’s largest district, developed a hybrid plan that would start the year with K-8 graders attending classes in person two days a week, high schoolers one day a week.

The new proclamation appears to override all of the work done by school districts and strikes at the very heart of our long tradition of local control of education. Here are the policy sections:

The proclamation instructs school districts to “take all efforts to prepare to safely welcome back students and teachers to school in-person this fall.” It allows remote learning only under the following conditions:

  • If a parent voluntarily selects remote learning as an option provided by the school district.
  • If the Department of Education and the Iowa Department of Public Health approve of a temporary move to remote learning for an entire building or district because of public health.
  • If individual students or classrooms require remote learning due to a health issue.
  • If inclement weather requires school closings for a period not exceeding five days, unless the Department of Education approves a closure for a longer period of time.
  • During her press conference, the governor stressed that her decision was based on “data and analytics,” and that any decision had to take into consideration the health and safety of students and teachers.

    Local school districts sought the input of stakeholders when they developed Return to Learn plans. Those plans took into account the safety and health of students and teachers. Reynolds’ restrictions do not. As many as 25 percent of Iowa’s teachers have health conditions that make them susceptible to COVID-19. Research does indicate that young children are less likely to have severe impacts from the virus and are less likely to transmit it, but not one iota of research says it won’t happen. The governor is attempting to force students and teachers into a classroom setting where the spread of the virus is more likely to occur.

    RELAXING REGULATIONS ON SUBSTITUTE TEACHERS

    Perhaps Reynolds has been reading Facebook comments from teachers who are weighing whether to retire or resign, rather than return to work. Or perhaps she anticipates many educators taking sick days after contracting COVID-19 in the workplace. Her proclamation included several sections to address an expected shortage of substitute teachers, by:

  • Suspending provisions in the law that limits the number of consecutive days and total number of days that a person can serve as a substitute teacher in a 30-day period.
  • Suspending the requirement that substitute teachers have a minimum of a Bachelor’s Degree. Now anyone with an Associate’s Degree or 60 hours of coursework can be issued a substitute authorization.
  • Lowering the age requirement for an applicant for a substitute authorization from 21 to 20.
  • Allowing a paraeducator with a substitute authorization for special education to qualify as a substitute teacher in any classroom in grades K-12.
  • Allowing the holder of a career and technical secondary authorization who has completed at least one year of teaching to serve as a substitute in any classroom in grades K-12.
  • During her press conference the governor stressed how important in-person learning would be for children and how the social and emotional aspects were just as important as the actual content of learning. If she truly believes this, then I find it ironic that she is willing to bring in anyone with a limited amount of content and pedagogical knowledge as a classroom instructor. I can’t imagine allowing a 20 year old to substitute in a classroom of high school seniors. That is a disaster waiting to happen.

    A DIFFICULT CHOICE FOR EDUCATORS

    Ultimately, this plan is just another page from the GOP playbook on public schools. Republicans have long held that anyone should be able to teach. By reducing the requirements for substitutes, Reynolds is simply following what her party has long espoused.

    The governor’s proclamation does not mention any requirement for students or teachers to wear face coverings. It does not mention any social distancing requirements. In fact, it contains not one solitary bit of guidance on any scientifically accepted method of preventing the spread of the virus.

    Instead, the governor has stated that these decisions are best left to the local level. Just today the governor of Illinois filed a lawsuit to force three reluctant school districts to require masks. That is what real leadership looks like.

    In contrast, Iowa’s governor punts on important decisions backed by science and limits local decision making through the implementation of what are purely political positions.

    Teachers and administrators are now left in a very difficult position. Will teachers vote with their feet and refuse to return to work? Will administrators defy the governor and pursue relief through the courts?

    Summer weekends are usually filled with rest and relaxation, but something tells me that there will be a lot of serious discussion taking place this weekend that may very well have a long term impact on what was once considered the premier education system in our country.
    _________________
    Editor’s note from Laura Belin: State Representative Ras Smith, the ranking Democrat on the Iowa House Education Committee, released the following statement on the new proclamation:

    “In the same hour that Iowa hit a record 879 new positive cases, Governor Reynolds added more uncertainty and confusion for thousands of parents, teachers, and students across Iowa.

    Instead of trusting school leaders and local public health officials who know what’s best for their community to reduce the spread, the Governor created more hoops and delays that will make the job our educators on the front-lines face even more difficult.

    The Governor should have released plans today to help reduce the spread, like robust testing in schools to prevent outbreaks, giving schools additional resources to deal with the pandemic, and guaranteeing local schools have the PPE necessary to keep everyone safe.

    One thing is crystal clear: Reynolds has repeatedly failed to provide the guidance and leadership needed in these critical times to control the spread of this virus and help kids get back to school safely.”

    State Senator Herman Quirmbach, the ranking Democrat on the Iowa Senate Education Committee, released the following statement:

    “Iowa schools are being forced into difficult choices between in-person learning and the health and safety of students and staff. The reason is that Governor Reynolds is losing the battle against COVID-19, making it more difficult for local school districts to protect Iowa schoolchildren, teachers, and other school employees and still achieve quality education.

    “The Governor is continuing to ignore science, common sense, and the health and safety of Iowans. Infection rates in Iowa are rising again. The Governor has ignored CDC guidelines regarding proper business opening timelines and has denied local governments the ability to correct her mistakes and meet the needs of their communities.

    “Instead of making the same kind of mistakes that states like Florida have made — where nearly 1/3 of school kids are now testing positive — the Governor should focus on providing widespread COVID-19 testing and robust contact tracing across the state. Only when we get serious about knocking down this virus can our kids have a quality education and a safe school environment.”

    The Iowa State Education Association, Iowa’s largest teachers union, released this statement from president Mike Beranek:

    On the same day Iowa reports one of the highest one-day totals since the pandemic began, we are outraged that Governor Reynold’s response to this spiraling community spread of COVID-19 is to make it harder for school districts to move quickly to protect the health and safety of students, school employees and communities at large.

    Today’s proclamation does nothing to increase protections in our schools including how they will pay for extra PPE, disinfectants and cleaning, access to testing, contact tracing, and a host of other data driven mitigation efforts making them safer for students, teachers and school employees to go back to in-person instruction.

    This proclamation is short-sighted at best. Governor Reynolds continues to focus on the short-term when science tells us COVID-19 is long-term. Her proclamation means schools are forced to expose students and school employees unnecessarily only to strip them of their local control and force them to appeal to the Department of Education in consultation with the Department of Public Health to seek permission to shut down again in an attempt to prevent further community spread.

    We continue to stand behind our students, our teachers and our school employees.

    We stand behind science and real data.

    We stand behind those school districts that are making good decisions about the health and safety of the people in their care.

    Instead of making it even harder to keep our schools safe, the Governor needs to empower school districts, staff and parents to decide what is best for their kids and communities.

    Top photograph of Ottumwa High School by Sgarchik, available via Wikimedia Commons.

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