Iowa Governor’s Push to Reopen Schools Descends Into Chaos
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — An aggressive push by Iowa’s pro-Trump governor to reopen schools amid a worsening coronavirus outbreak has descended into chaos, with some districts and teachers rebelling and experts calling the scientific benchmarks used by the state arbitrary and unsafe.
The clash in the Midwest has illustrated in condensed form the tension between science and politics — and between economic concerns and health fears — that has characterized the nation’s response to the outbreak from the White House on down. The virus has devastated the U.S. economy and killed over 170,000 Americans.
“We’re about to see a tragedy occur in the state. And there’s not a lot we can do about it. That’s frightening,” said Sara Anne Willette of Ames, a parent and former math tutor who runs a website tracking state infection data.
At issue is Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ mandate in July that districts offer at least 50% classroom instruction.
The conflict intensified Wednesday when the statewide teachers union announced a lawsuit challenging the governor’s ability to make such decisions for local districts. The Iowa City school board, which like many others had planned to start the year fully online, voted to join the lawsuit.
In her order, the governor said districts where 15% or more of coronavirus tests were positive over the prior 14 days can request permission to move to online instruction for two weeks at a time.
Health experts say Reynolds’ 15% threshold is not based on science and is three times higher than what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests is safe. The surgeon general has recommended a 10% limit.
States and local districts have set widely varying thresholds for reopening schools, but Iowa’s is among the highest anywhere.
“They decided they wanted to open schools and then set the threshold, rather than deciding what’s safe and meeting that target. They did it backwards,” said Eli Perencevich, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Iowa.
By contrast, New York City says schools can reopen if positivity rates are below 3%. Arizona has put its rate at 7%.
Perencevich and others warn that it will only be a matter of time before Iowa educators, students and their families face illness and death in growing outbreaks. About a half-million students are preparing to begin school in the coming days.
Reynolds has dismissed the health warnings as scare tactics and, echoing President Donald Trump, argued that children infrequently get seriously ill from or transmit the virus. She has said schools need to be open for children’s benefit and so parents can go to work.
“Education is fundamental to the well-being of our children, and our teachers are essential to ensuring that our schoolkids return to learn rather than mark time and lose ground,” she said. “We can do this safely.”
Reynolds noted that one of her daughters will be teaching in-person classes and eight of her grandchildren will be going to school this fall.
Since her order, Iowa’s outbreak has only gotten worse. Its per capita cases are the highest in the Midwest, the number of patients now in the hospital has increased to nearly 300, deaths surpassed 1,000 Wednesday, and dozens of nursing homes are suffering outbreaks. The governor has refused to order the wearing of masks statewide.
As of Wednesday, only a few districts across the state would qualify to request a waiver under the state’s calculations.
Making matters worse: The data the state is using to calculate local positivity rates has been flawed.
The Fort Dodge district this week said its positivity rate looked grimmer than it really was because a clinic failed to report up to 3,000 negative tests.
Other school districts are seeing worse outbreaks than the state data would indicate. Reynolds’ office announced Wednesday that it is fixing a major flaw in the data that unintentionally backdated thousands of negative and positive test results, which will lower or raise each county’s 14-day positivity rate.
Thomas Tsai, a health policy researcher at Harvard, called Iowa’s 15% threshold arbitrary and said it was made worse by the data problems. He said Iowa is among the states rushing to reopen schools despite not having the virus contained, while others that could safely reopen them haven’t done so.
“You are seeing both extremes,” he said.
The governor’s order also required school districts to give parents the option of choosing online-only education, and many have agonized over what to do.
A storm that damaged school buildings across the state last week with 100 mph winds dealt another blow, and many districts have delayed their start dates so they can clean up and make repairs.
But it also highlighted the friendly relationship between Reynolds and Trump, who traveled to Iowa on Tuesday to discuss the damage with the governor.
Business groups have backed her in her move to reopen schools. Democratic lawmakers and school officials have mostly lined up against her.
“I believe the governor is misinterpreting that law,” said Iowa City school board member J.P. Claussen, who said the state’s metrics “don’t seem designed to keep our staff and students safe.”
The governor has warned that administrators who defy the state could face discipline against their licenses. In addition, the state said schools moving to 100% virtual instruction will not be allowed to offer sports or other activities. That could put pressure on administrators to keep classrooms open even when outbreaks occur.
Under pressure, some districts, including Iowa City, have decided on a hybrid arrangement in which students will go to class two or three days per week.
But the Des Moines district, the state’s largest school system, is still pushing back against the state, despite the county’s positivity rate well below 15%. The school board intends to begin next month in an online-only format but allow sports and other extracurricular activities.
In The News
STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Nurses around the U.S. are getting burned out by the COVID-19 crisis and quitting, yet applications... Read More
STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Nurses around the U.S. are getting burned out by the COVID-19 crisis and quitting, yet applications to nursing schools are rising, driven by what educators say are young people who see the global emergency as an opportunity and a challenge. Among them... Read More
WASHINGTON — The White House will institute a new federal policy initiative to help advance educational equity and economic opportunity... Read More
WASHINGTON — The White House will institute a new federal policy initiative to help advance educational equity and economic opportunity for Native Americans by vitalizing tribal colleges and universities. The executive order, signed by President Joe Biden on Monday, designates the secretary of the Department of... Read More
NEW YORK (AP) — New York City teachers and other school staff members were all supposed to be vaccinated against... Read More
NEW YORK (AP) — New York City teachers and other school staff members were all supposed to be vaccinated against COVID-19 when the bell rang Monday morning in one of the first school district mandates in the country requiring employees to be inoculated against the coronavirus.... Read More
WASHINGTON -- Biden administration officials tried to assure a Senate panel Thursday that the nation’s schools are following the right... Read More
WASHINGTON -- Biden administration officials tried to assure a Senate panel Thursday that the nation’s schools are following the right strategy to remain open while minimizing the risk of spreading COVID-19. The new school year is barely a month old but controversies still rage in lawsuits... Read More
WASHINGTON (AP) — As Democrats push ahead with President Joe Biden's $3.5 trillion rebuilding plan, they're promising historic investments across... Read More
WASHINGTON (AP) — As Democrats push ahead with President Joe Biden's $3.5 trillion rebuilding plan, they're promising historic investments across the arc of an education — from early childhood to college and beyond — in what advocates describe as the most comprehensive package of its kind... Read More
The Federal Communications Commission is allocating over $1.2 billion in the first round of funding of the $7.17 billion Emergency... Read More
The Federal Communications Commission is allocating over $1.2 billion in the first round of funding of the $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund Program with the aim of connecting more than 3.6 million students across the U.S., according to a release today. Seeking to close the homework... Read More