Reynolds orders Iowa schools to ‘welcome back’ students to classroom

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. (Photo from Reynolds' YouTube channel.)

Gov. Kim Reynolds is ordering all Iowa schools to begin the process of “preparing to safely welcome back students and teachers” to the classroom next month.

Reynolds said that “the expectation is, especially with core subjects, that over 50 percent of those subjects (will) be offered in the school building.”

Reynolds made the announcement Friday at a news conference in Van Meter.

“Given the importance of education to our children and to the people of Iowa, we owe it to them to just roll up our sleeves and get our schools back up and running safely and effectively,” Reynolds said. “Iowa law says that in-person instruction is the presumed method of instruction for the school year. Schools must prioritize in-person learning for core academic subjects including science, math, reading and social studies. And the Legislature has made it clear that most schools cannot provide more than half of their instruction to any student through remote learning unless I authorize remote learning in a proclamation.”

The governor’s office said the proclamation she signed Friday “provides clarity for when a school may move to primarily remote learning,” authorizing it only under specific circumstances:

  • When parents select remote learning as the best option for their family.
  • When the Iowa Department of Education approves a temporary move to online learning for an entire building or district in response to public health conditions.
  • When a school, in consultation with state and local public health officials, determines that individual students or classrooms must be temporarily moved to online learning.
  • When a school chooses to temporarily move to online learning because of severe weather instead of taking a snow day.

Reynolds said Friday that her decision in April to close schools for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year was “data driven,” and said she has taken the “same  approach” in ordering districts to welcome students back into the classroom this summer.

In April, the state was averaging 719 new infections per week. Currently, it is averaging 3,719 new cases per week.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from Ames and the ranking member of the Senate Education Committee, responded to the Republican governor’s announcement by saying she is “continuing to ignore science, common sense, and the health and safety of Iowans.”

Quirmbach said 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 … Instead of making the same kind of mistakes that states like Florida have made — where nearly one-third of school kids are now testing positive — the governor should focus on providing widespread COVID-19 testing and robust contact tracing across the state.”

Reynolds noted that districts that still intend to provide more than 50% of their instruction through remote learning due to public health concerns will need to have a waiver approved by the state. Her plan is likely to force some school districts — including that of Des Moines, where plans call for some students to receive classroom instruction no more than once a week — to apply for such a waiver.

The governor’s announcement comes amid a significant upswing in COVID-19 cases in Iowa. The state is one of 18 now considered to be “red zone” states where infections are climbing.

“While we all know the school year will be different than it’s ever been before, it’s critical that we prioritize bringing Iowa’s children back to the classroom safely and responsibly,” Reynolds said.

Her proclamation also removes limitations on how often substitute teachers — some of whom work in more than one school building or district — can teach, and will expand the definition of substitute teacher to provide districts with greater flexibility in staffing.

The governor said the instructional options given to Iowa schools will be adjusted in the event of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.