Sarah Zdenek is a Des Moines area educator who works in both virtual and in-person educational contexts. She also has children enrolled in Des Moines Public Schools. -promoted by Laura Belin
Governor Kim Reynolds proclaimed on July 17 that Iowa students must return to schools for in-person learning for at least 50 percent of the time. Her plan fails to address the facts in evidence as to the level of safety and preparedness of our public and accredited private schools. It also fails at basic math.
Before Reynolds stood ever so bravely before the cameras and expressed her opinion on what is best for other people’s children, Des Moines and many other school districts had not only publicly released their Return to Learn plans, but had begun registering students. Was waiting so long to issue her proclamation a surprise or a calculated decision?
Unfortunately, Reynolds’ arguments continue to rehash cherry-picked claims from a federal administration that cannot even mandate masks, despite their proven efficacy in reducing virus transmission. She provided little guidance other than to sing a one-note outcry to throw open the doors and send the children back to school.
The governor failed to reflect on the local impact of the decisions made by Des Moines Public Schools and other metro communities. For months, the Iowa Department of Education required school districts to focus on creating a plan for fall with the options of in-person learning, virtual learning, or a hybrid combination of the two. Why the last-minute reversal?
The Cedar Rapids Gazette quoted Reynolds as saying,
Students learn best when they’re in school, [f]or all of the wonders of online and distanced learning — and it does play a role — it’s not a replacement for in-person classes. We also can’t forget the critical role that our schools play in addressing inequities for our most vulnerable student populations.
Yet has this statement been examined for accuracy in our digital world? It is shocking to think that in 2020 online learning is still considered a “wonder,” especially from a leader who jumped on Ivanka Trump’s “Find Something New” campaign as soon as that hashtag crossed her Twitter feed. Does the governor think the new thing will be cobbling shoes? More likely online learning will be essential for new skill training, even if those changing career paths do not return for formal certifications or degrees.
For years the State of Iowa funded Iowa Learning Online to support schools across the state where there were teacher shortages or students needed online courses. The majority of those tax-dollar funded courses were supplied by the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) and all were taught by Iowa licensed teachers.
In “A Summary of Research on the Effectiveness of K-12 Online Learning,” from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, Iowans can read about just one of the research-based studies about the value of online learning.
Florida TaxWatch is a nonprofit, known as the “watch dog” of citizen’s tax dollars. […] The Florida TaxWatch’s Center for Educational Performance and Accountability conducted the research to assess whether Florida Virtual School (FLVS) offers an efficient, taxpayer-accountable alternative and supplemental system of education.
A description of the study reads: “The study examined student demographics, achievement, and cost-effectiveness, finding that during the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years FLVS students consistently outperformed their counterparts in Florida’s traditional middle and high schools on such measures as grades, Advanced Placement scores, and FCAT scores. […]
· FLVS students perform better than students in traditional classes, based on student achievement;
· FLVS is serving a higher proportion of minority and underserved students demographically statewide;
· FLVS provides a new, more rigorous model of accountability for K-12 public education that is data-rich and performance-driven.
That is just one example of a third party verifying the concrete benefits of online learning opportunities. It is hard to find data supporting full return to school during the 1918 flu pandemic, because it didn’t happen. National Geographic’s article, “How Some Cities ‘Flattened the Curve’ During the 1918 Flu Pandemic,” explained, “The most effective efforts had simultaneously closed schools, churches, and theaters, and banned public gatherings.”
Iowa never shut down, Reynolds likes to remind all of our citizens about her effectiveness in this regard. Will she be as proud of her numbers when children fall ill?
It is concerning that now is the time when letters to the editor and government officials remember to add disparate access to educational opportunities and achievement to their talking points. Why weren’t these concerns about equity in schools at the forefront of the news cycle before?
Proclamations do little to address institutionalized racism and ethnic disparities. And sadly, when we are in the middle of a pandemic with less than five weeks’ time before our children are planning to begin their school year, Reynolds decides to start throwing her weight around as an educational expert? It is humbling how much work public schools in Iowa have had and will continue to have to do to provide a diverse and supportive environment that mirrors society. That work is not going away, but this next month has many priorities and the fundamental steps are at the foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, not ensconced in the masks optional Twitter-verse of the governor.
When faced with the immediate situation, the Des Moines Public Schools and all districts must look at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) numbers for COVID-19 risks among all their student populations and make a reasonable plan.
The CDC states (emphasis in original),
Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put some members of racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness, regardless of age. Among some racial and ethnic minority groups, including non-Hispanic black persons, Hispanics and Latinos, and American Indians/Alaska Natives, evidence points to higher rates of hospitalization or death from COVID-19 than among non-Hispanic white persons. As of June 12, 2020, age-adjusted hospitalization rates are highest among non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native and non-Hispanic black persons, followed by Hispanic or Latino persons.
· Non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native persons have a rate approximately 5 times that of non-Hispanic white persons,
· non-Hispanic black persons have a rate approximately 5 times that of non-Hispanic white persons,
· Hispanic or Latino persons have a rate approximately 4 times that of non-Hispanic white persons.
Numerous people have claimed this shouldn’t be concerning, as the impact rarely reaches children. But according to the Des Moines Public Schools website, 20.52 percent of the district’s students identify as African American and 26.39 percent identify as Hispanic/Latino.
The question then becomes, even with students who are Hispanic or Latino and Black, at least one-third of Iowa’s largest school district is in a critical group at a higher risk when it comes to COVID-19. If those children are at a higher risk, so are their caregivers: parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, cousins, anyone who is in close contact with them, because school does not happen in a vacuum.
Statewide, about 6.3 percent of Iowans are Hispanic or Latin, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, and 4.1 percent is Black or African American. Meanwhile, alarming disparities are apparent in Iowa’s COVID-19 cases. At this writing, the state’s website shows that at least 21 percent of positive cases self- identified as Hispanic or Latino, and 8 percent self-identified as Black or African American.
Clearly, this is not just an area for concern in Des Moines. It’s a statewide issue, and the governor needs to treat it as such. If Iowa City school district leaders approved a plan to start the academic year 100 percent virtually, there is a reason. They had to do all of the same community surveys and feedback forums as every other district. Who is Reynolds to say she knows better? She lives at Terrace Hill, not North Clinton Street.
This is why the Return to Learn planning process required each school district to consider a number of factors. Most of them were centered around the social, emotional, and physical health of the students and caregivers. Concerns such as food insecurity, daycare, work, and housing held just as much sway as access to the internet for class participation. Numerous surveys were sent out to both students and caregivers so opinions, needs, fears, and more could all be factored into the decision-making process. Documented revisions to initial plans in many districts were made because of direct feedback.
True, not everyone is happy, but how can they be? COVID-19 is still here and spreading rapidly. There is fear and uncertainty. What the Des Moines school district can do, and is doing, is to be pragmatic, putting the health and safety of others first. A great example is how they dealt with meal service immediately after the delayed start date was announced. The district continued to ramp up its meal service throughout the school year and summer to meet increased demand.
It is clear this crisis is far from over. If high school dropouts increase, it is because there is not enough support for students to complete school in a safe environment. Based on the alarming rise in COVID-19 cases in Polk County and many other parts of the state, a large group setting is most likely not a safe environment. If we expect students to be at school, then a staggered schedule that allows for appropriate social distancing and thorough sanitizing between student interactions is essential.
If we are worried students will not have access to mental health professionals and services, perhaps we need to first determine if there are resources in schools when they are open and fully functional. The shortage has been a long-term problem. Last year Iowa Public Radio reported,
Schools are often on the forefront in spotting mental health issues in children. But historically educators have received little training in this area. In Iowa, legislators have set aside $2 million to expand mental health training in schools. But when nearly a quarter of kids are estimated to have a psychiatric disorder, some people want the state to do more.
Reynolds held a press conference on July 7 to announce $50 million in mental health funds for Iowans, during which she praised the implementation of telehealth services for mental health counseling. She also stated, “In Iowa, we take obstacles and we turn them into opportunities. We don’t want to just weather the storm of COVID-19. We want to help our system innovate and adapt to the challenges the future holds.”
The governor has not made even the most basic, scientifically-backed preventative measure mandatory for students or staff returning to school-masks. How many public forums has she held to gauge public needs for schooling options? How many press conferences has she held addressing possible new school models since the spring closures were finalized?
With all of her encouragement for Iowans to try new things and weather the storm through innovation, she clearly thinks very little of her constituents when it comes to our children.
Reynolds has done little to nothing to prepare for fall other than overturn the apple cart after the fact. It takes very little effort to merely parrot what the president says and not concern yourself with the citizens you are charged with governing. Nowhere in her latest proclamation was there an appeal or declaration of special funding for PPE for schools to address where there will be shortages She vilifies virtual learning to provide political cover for short-sighted choices that will lead to sick kids.
According to the CDC School Decision Tree, a school district needs to be able to answer yes to three questions in order to consider moving to the safeguarding phase. The second one is chilling: “Is the school ready to protect children and employees at higher risk for severe illness?” Will we know before it is too late? After that there are two more columns of questions to confirm before the district even gets to “Open and Monitor.”
In the final analysis, Reynolds’ misguided, partisan-focused claim that all students must return to school begins to swell as an eerie cry for the best, most educated, state-funded source of child supervision to neglect common sense and safety and let her political agenda run free. All of this while she conveniently forgets to mention that the schools will be woefully ill-equipped with the practical tools necessary to keep our children healthy.
Top image: Screen shot from a video posted on Governor Kim Reynolds’ YouTube channel on July 13.