An open letter to the Des Moines School Board

Dave O’Connor teaches at Merrill Middle School in Des Moines. -promoted by Laura Belin

On October 14, the president of the United States held a superspreader event at the Des Moines Airport for 6,000 mostly un-masked, non-socially distanced supporters. Governor Kim Reynolds was right at his side. He did it on the same day that our neighbors in Wisconsin, who are now at the epicenter of the pandemic, opened a field hospital with 500 beds to try to relieve pressure on their overtaxed hospital system, and only eight days after hospitalizations for COVID-19 reached an all-time high in Iowa–a record that has been surpassed multiple times since.

And just for good measure, the rally directly violated the governor’s own emergency proclamations, which require organizers of mass gatherings to “ensure at least six feet of physical distance between each group or individual attending alone.”

The man behind the superspreader event is the same person who on July 6 tweeted that all schools in the United States should be reopened in the fall. A short eleven days after that tweet, Reynolds issued her infamous July 17 proclamation, which denied localities the authority to make their own decisions about how to safely reopen their schools, upending the responsible work of districts like our own and throwing the Return to Learn plans of school districts all over Iowa into chaos.

This is the same governor who issued an emergency proclamation closing Iowa schools in March, and extended the proclamation several times before finally closing schools down for the rest of the year on April 17, stating, “While I would like nothing more than to open up our schools and classrooms in May, we have to prioritize the health and safety of Iowans.” What a difference three months and one ALL CAPS tweet makes.

That governor stood unmasked next to the maskless president at the Des Moines airport, and begged the packed throng to re-elect the commander in chief who has presided over the deaths of more than 225,000 Americans. Tens of thousands of COVID-19 victims, according to a new study released by Columbia University, could have been saved by a competent governmental response to the pandemic.

These are the politicians whose arms you collapsed into during your meeting on September 30, after months of leading the state yourselves and valiantly defending the courageous work of our superintendent on the principle of local control, and the importance of science, and responsible public health policy for students and district employees.

You collapsed after listening to local health experts implore you not to give in to the governor’s reckless mandates that are “three times higher than what national and international epidemiology experts have said is safe for students to return to school.” These mandates are found nowhere else in the United States. Christine Petersen, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa, told the Des Moines Register the governor’s metrics aren’t based in any science and aren’t helpful in stopping the spread of COVID-19.  

You collapsed after talking about the importance of listening to experts and then devising new metrics, one of which uses Iowa Department of Public Health data on positivity rates, which experts have criticized as inaccurate, as a detailed expose by Bleeding Heartland showed.

After dismissing those local experts in creating new metrics, and then realizing that our community wasn’t going to meet even those lowered measures, you nonetheless decided to plunge headlong into sending students and staff back to school buildings anyway–whether the metrics were met or not, with little to no transparency about whether these new metrics would be revisited.

You collapsed after months of rhetoric about “ensuring the health and safety of our students, staff and community,” “going to the wall on this,” “understanding how dangerous this virus really is because you’ve experienced it,” “standing up to bullies,” and how important local control of health and safety decisions are.

You defended your decision with vague references to unnamed, and unquantified constituencies in the community who want their children back in school, while claiming that the decision had nothing to do with politics or sports, even though new district survey data showed a roughly 10 percent increase in the number of families electing an all virtual mode of instruction between July and early October of this year (conversation with Joshua Brown, President, Des Moines Education Association).

You referenced real concerns about students negatively impacted in many ways by the lack of in person instruction, but provided no data specific to those kids in our district. Most important, you didn’t seriously entertain any alternative plan that might have addressed the needs of those specific students without bringing thousands of others back into the buildings at a time when scientists were predicting a second wave. Your very own expert witness in the Polk County court case, Dr. Michael Osterholm, predicted on October 18 that the “next six to twelve weeks are going to be the darkest of the entire pandemic.”

You never addressed the issue of continuity of instruction that Superintendent Thomas Ahart, the teachers union, and other educators have continually emphasized; the notion that it is terrible for students to bounce back and forth between different modes of instruction, which is nearly inevitable if you truly intend to follow the metrics that you have created. Your failure to address this issue causes concern about how serious you really are about using these metrics in a responsible fashion, and what lies next.

You hung Dr. Ahart out to dry by effectively stripping him of his ability to lead unilaterally on the public health and safety issues of the pandemic, but then stating during your October 6 meeting that you “will hold the superintendent accountable for the health and safety of our students and staff.”  

You talked about the importance of providing choice to parents, but essentially foreclosed choice for staff members, nearly one-third of whom have co-morbidities that put us at higher risk from COVID-19, if we want to continue to support our families. In the context of that difficult decision for staff members, you let us know how hard your decision was and how hard it had been to listen to your own children begging you to go back to school.

And then at the same October 6 meeting, after railing on the governor’s mandates, Board chair Kyrstin Delagardelle said “there were no winners” in the decision to move from all virtual instruction, and that the decisions “maybe aren’t in the best interests of all of our students and all of our staff.” That doesn’t engender a lot of confidence as some of us march back into the buildings tomorrow.

As I prepare myself to enter my building on October 26, to “engage” my students while wearing a mask and a face guard and coming no closer than 7 feet to any of them, the White House Coronavirus Task Force said in its most recent report that Iowa has among the nation’s highest death and infection rates. Between October 10 and October 16, the report showed, COVID-19 deaths increased by 33 percent, and Iowa’s per capita infection and death rates were roughly double the national average.

As of October 22, 536 Iowans were hospitalized with the virus, a new record that was broken twice more in the next two days. All in all, according to KCCI, “Iowa had 238 new cases and 2.8 deaths per 100,000 population last week, which were both about double the national average and ranked the state 8th in cases and 6th in deaths. Deaths have risen even faster this week, now reaching 1,617 since the beginning of the pandemic.” [Editor’s note: two days later, the official statewide death toll is 1,635.]

Here in Polk County, our numbers remain dangerously high and are increasing. Our RO transmission rate, a measure you have inexplicably decided to ignore in your new metrics has again risen well above 1.00, currently sitting at 1.15 indicating that the virus continues to spread unabated in the community.

Our daily new case count sits at a dangerous 26.1 per 100,000 population, and our positive test rate is at 16.9 percent, all according to Covid Act Now, “… a multidisciplinary team of technologists, epidemiologists, and public health experts” working in conjunction with the Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science and Security, Stanford University Clinical Excellence Research Center, and Harvard Global Health Institute, to provide accurate data on the progression of the virus, even down to the county level.

That 16.9 percent positivity rate for Polk County is more than double the dubious rate reported by the Iowa Department of Public Health, which you chose as your metric for the DMPS Community Dashboard.

CNN’s Jake Tapper recently asked Des Moines physician Dr. Austin Baeth of Unity Point Health how bad things were “on the ground in Iowa.” Dr. Baeth replied, “The virus is absolutely winning right now. We are on defense.”

Tapper asked whether the positivity rate that exceeded 20 percent over the previous week was a sign things would soon get worse in Iowa. Baeth replied,

Absolutely. The fact that our test positivity rate is so high means that we are missing a lot of cases. There are a lot of people out there who aren’t even being diagnosed yet. […]

It’s probably really worse then what we actually see right now in terms of number of cases.

Dr. Baeth went on to make an impassioned plea for courageous leadership during a time when demagogues are deliberately sabotaging science and the very notion of objective truth. He expressed astonishment that leaders were encouraging people to gather in large numbers.

We all need to take our part in making some sacrifice to protect ourselves and in turn protect others, especially the more vulnerable people around us. And that requires leadership.

I’m going to tell you the truth. We doctors are feeling frustrated and we’re feeling helpless. You know they refer to health care workers as being on the front lines. You know, we’re actually more in the back taking care of the casualties. People on the front lines are everyday people trying to get by in their daily lives in the midst of a terrible health crisis, and they need to be guided by leaders to figure out how to navigate this crisis.

At one time you led the state of Iowa, providing exactly the kind of leadership Dr. Baeth called for. I was one of many to publicly support your actions. The superintendent you direct has never wavered at any moment in his commitment to put the health and safety of students, staff and the community first, even when it meant putting his own career on the line. 

You said and did all of the right things for so long, and then six of you allowed it all to disappear in one evening.  Since then you’ve talked far more about the need for unanimity on the Board going forward, and far less about the health and safety of our community. As cases explode around central Iowa, and the Dashboard numbers appear to call for an All Virtual mode of instruction, you’ve been essentially silent.  

The Board chair was right. Sitting on the school board isn’t the easiest job even in the best of times. We need you the most, however, in the worst of times. 

As I get ready to re-enter my classroom tomorrow after doing my part for the last eight months to ”live my daily life in the midst of a terrible health crisis,” protect myself, my family, and my community, and provide the best education that I can, safely, for my students, it feels like the worst of times. And since six of you made the decision to fall in line with irresponsible politicians who undermine the very principles of leadership that Dr. Baeth, and countless other scientific experts in the field have laid out, there now appears to be no one at the wheel to “navigate this crisis.”  

It is what it is. We’ll wait and see what happens as thousands of students and staff stream back into the buildings during the darkest weeks of the pandemic, count on Iowans to do the right thing, and hope that we can turn the corner.

Top image: Screen shot from the video of the socially distanced Des Moines School Board meeting on October 6.

  • t

    As a teaching artist who, after almost 30 years, declined to continue this year, I feel your sense of betrayal. To me it boils down to the fact that DMPS are state employees. The School board themselves may not be but the teachers, administrators etc. that they advise and set policy for are.
    As far as I know, Reynolds’ approach has **never** included an olive branch-opportunity to sit down with State K-12 stakeholders. Instead of partnering with health/science experts to create a plan of action, Reynolds, like DJT, creates confrontation and displays inflexible ignorance.
    So, the school board, sitting in the communications gap, has no control over KR but they are painfully aware of a (declawed) unionized workforce, afraid for their jobs and afraid of the virus. They also feel the hot breath of parents and the expectations they have for their kids on their neck.

    I agree with your assessment of this sad situation but without massive guidance from those adept at public-employee labor wars, the school board is, frankly, out of its league.
    If KR and DMPS/school board continue this unproductive standoff, if no one can reach across for the good of the community, the virus will remain out of control and Iowa K-12 labor relations may be destroyed in the process.

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