Many Iowa school staff won't receive pandemic bonuses

More than two dozen Iowans employed in K-12 schools have died of COVID-19 since April 2020, according to data Sara Anne Willette compiled for Iowa COVID-19 Tracker. But thousands of people who worked in schools or around students during the pandemic won't be eligible for the $1,000 bonuses Governor Kim Reynolds has promised to reward "Iowa educators who stayed in the classroom."

Reynolds can unilaterally decide how to allocate most federal COVID-19 relief funds, since the Republican-controlled state legislature has declined to exercise any oversight over that process. During her Condition of the State address to legislators on January 11, Reynolds declared,

Our teachers provide more than textbook instruction. They give emotional support and structure. They help guide our children through their most difficult and formative years.

That’s why it was, and remains, so important that our schools stay open. And that’s why I’m proud of the tens of thousands of Iowa educators who stayed in the classroom when so many in other states did not.

As a means of saying “Thank you”—and to help retain our educators—I’m announcing tonight that we’ll use federal ESSER funds to award a $1,000 retention bonus to teachers who stayed on the job through the pandemic and who will continue teaching next year. Your work is essential and we want you to know it.

"ESSER" stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief. Congress allocated $190 billion toward those funds as part of three pandemic-related stimulus packages approved in 2020 and 2021. Iowa law enforcement officers and some child care workers will also receive $1,000 retention bonuses, funded through different sources.

A $1,000 bonus can be viewed as a pittance against the backdrop of Republicans' underfunding of public schools, and the governor's efforts to siphon public money to private schools. Nevertheless, $1,000 would be a significant boost to the family budget for many who work for public or private schools.

Too bad thousands of Iowans who took risks to work around students during the pandemic won't get any of that money, even though many of them earn less than full-time classroom teachers.

Reynolds' spokesperson Alex Murphy confirmed to Bleeding Heartland that none of the following types of employees will be eligible for the retention bonus: bus drivers, custodians, librarians, school counselors, school nurses, food service workers, before and after care workers, coaches, associates who worked with children in classrooms during the pandemic, or teachers who taught online during all or part of the pandemic.

Murphy explained,

While there are many individuals within our school communities who provide critical support and services to students, the parameters for the teacher retention payments are specific to full-time, in-person classroom teachers.

However, public schools in Iowa currently have nearly $700 million in unspent federal funding available, including for retention bonuses, if they so choose.

Murphy later shared a link to a KCRG-TV report about the Cedar Rapids school district tapping ESSER funds in December to provide bonuses for all full-time staff.

According to data compiled by Willette, most of the Iowa school employees who died of COVID-19 were not full-time, in-person classroom teachers. At least six of those who passed away had been working as school bus drivers. Retention bonuses for those doing that job would be an obvious choice, given that the work requires daily face-to-face contact with students, and many Iowa school districts have struggled to hire enough drivers over the past year.

Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek criticized the governor's decision in a February 28 written statement. Beranek noted "the importance of the wide range of education professionals who keep the doors open, the classrooms running and our children safe." The state's largest union for educators is demanding that "all of them be equally recognized for this work."

Bus drivers safely transport our children to and from school while cafeteria workers fuel them with plentiful and healthy meals. School counselors and nurses play an integral role in keeping our students healthy and safe, and custodians keep our buildings clean and in good repair. Many education support personnel work one-on-one guiding and teaching students with special needs, teacher librarians are experts in cultivating excellent learning materials and our area education agency professionals support and enhance the myriad needs of a vast school population. Iowa’s community college professionals offer some of the best in affordable professional training.

It is unthinkable that Gov. Reynolds recognized only a part of this expansive community by allocating $1,000 of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan funds to some and not all.

During her re-election campaign, Reynolds will likely brag about giving teachers $1,000 bonuses. Too bad her gratitude toward school employees did not extend to thousands who put themselves in danger to keep working with kids over the past two years.

UPDATE: The spouse of an Iowa teacher pointed out on Twitter, "If they have taught even one virtual class this year, they are ineligible for the bonus. Even if the rest of their teaching is in-person." That will exclude some classroom teachers, especially in larger districts.

SECOND UPDATE: The Iowa Department of Education changed the eligibility requirements on March 8, Ethan Stein reported for KCRG-TV.

Originally only teachers who taught 100% in-person were eligible for the bonus payment, according to documents and videos from the Department of Education. [...]

The Department of Education released a new frequently asked question document, which shows the state has changed the 100% in-person requirement to those who didn’t teach 100% online along with other clarifications.

Appendix: Iowa school staff who have died of COVID-19 but didn't hold regular classroom teaching jobs, according to data compiled at Iowa COVID-19 Tracker

Robert Wayne Thompson, bus driver (Ankeny school district)

Brenda Kay Brewer, associate (Chariton school district)

Corey Allen Paetznick, custodian (Adel-DeSoto-Minburn school district)

David A. Kelley, custodian (Webster City school district)

Deborah Wright, instructor/teaching/ research assistant (Southeastern Community College)

Gary Thomas, school bus mechanic (Des Moines Public Schools)

Ken Crane, bus driver (Atlantic school district)

Heidi Ruhrer, secretary (Sioux City school district)

Jennifer Crawford, special education assistant (West Des Moines school district)

James Luensman, head of paramedic program (Kirkwood Community College)

John DeMarco, football coach (Regina High School in Iowa City)

John Wright, bus driver (Southeast Polk school district)

Larry Hon, bus driver (Johnston school district)

Stephanie Oliver, cook (Council Bluffs school district)

Kerry Phillips, superintendent (Mormon Trail Schools)

Thomas Howes, bus driver and attendant (Dubuque school district)

Jim Blomme, bus driver (Belle Plaine school district)

Muharem Mrkonjic, custodian (Ankeny school district)

Melinda Mutti, substitute teacher (Pella and Knoxville school districts)

Top image: A child boards a school bus in Des Moines in this photo taken on October 1, 2018 and published on the Des Moines Public Schools' Flickr stream.

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