Gov. Kim Reynolds sets thresholds for when schools can close due to COVID-19

Gov. Kim Reynolds has been asked to repay $21 in pandemic relief she wants to use for software. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Gov. Kim Reynolds detailed plans Thursday for what school districts should do if a student tests positive for COVID-19 or the community spread of the virus is high.

Reynolds emphasized during a news conference that she wanted as many students to return to school as possible. 

Reynolds said school-aged children are less likely to transmit the virus or be symptomatic, though Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the state’s epidemiologist, said children ages 10 to 17 and those with underlying health conditions may endure more of the severe symptoms of COVID-19.

But Reynolds said she’s prioritizing in-person classes because she wants to ensure all students, particularly those at risk of academic failure, get the resources they need from their buildings and staff.

“We’re looking at the whole child and taking a look at everything when we’re talking about getting these children the education that they deserve,” Reynolds said.

The new guidelines from Reynolds, the Iowa Department of Public Health and the Iowa Department of Education sets thresholds for when schools should cancel events, limit movement between classrooms or temporarily close their buildings.

There’s a range of steps schools can take, including sending a class home or shutting down the entire district for two weeks.

But the new thresholds don’t match recommendations from the World Health Organization or the U.S. surgeon general. School districts may request to go to 100% online learning for two weeks if their counties have a 15% positive COVID-19 rate in a two-week period and 10% of students are absent. Districts in counties with 20% and above may also request temporarily closing buildings or the whole district.

The World Health Organization recommends reopening only if infection rates are under 5%. Surgeon General Jerome Adams recommended schools reopen if they remain under 10%.

Reynolds said 93 Iowa counties, including Polk and Linn, have less than 10% positive COVID-19 rates.

But she said new information is frequently coming out regarding how states should respond to COVID-19.

“This is a very fluid situation and it’s going to continue to change and we have to be adaptable and flexible,” Reynolds said. “We get new information all the time and none of us should be surprised by that.”

During a roundtable discussion on Wednesday, teachers from school districts across the state shared their fears about returning to school and lamented Reynolds’ requiring them to hold 50% of instruction in-person.

Maggie Rietz, a teacher at West High School in Davenport said she spent weeks helping her school district come up with a plan to return to school in the fall. The district was deciding between 100% remote learning or have students come in one day a week.

“This proclamation destroyed any sense of safety I had returning to school,” Rietz said, referring to Reynolds’ July 17 order.

Even with 50% attendance, Rietz said her urban school district will struggle with social distancing and poor circulation in small classrooms.

“This is not the safe time for our schools to go 50% back in person,” Rietz said.

State Sen. Herman Quarmbach, D-Ames, condemned the governor’s new guidance in a statement and said she is ignoring public health advice, such as requiring masks.

“Her rhetoric about requiring schools to reopen despite the health care risks is eerily similar to her tragic efforts to keep meatpacking plants open at all costs,” Quirmbach, ranking member of the Senate Education Committee, said in his statement.

Reynolds pointed out the number of high school softball and baseball teams that were able to finish their season this year and said students were happy they were allowed to return to sports.

She said 96% of 338 baseball teams and 97% of 335 softball teams were able to finish their season this summer.

“They show an unqualified success,” Reynolds said. “We can do this and we can do this safely.”

School reopening guidance from the state (click on image to enlarge)

The state offered additional guidance on what school districts should do if a student tests positive for COVID-19 or community spread is high. (Photo by State of Iowa)
The state offered additional guidance on what school districts should do if a student tests positive for COVID-19 or community spread is high. (Photo by State of Iowa)

The new guidance lays out details regarding how school districts should react depending on the COVID-19 positivity rate in their counties.

  • School districts in counties with 5% or less positive COVID-19 cases should follow typical practices, such as social distancing as much as possible and students and staff staying home if they’re sick.
  • School districts in counties with 6-14% positive COVID-19 cases are suggested to reduce their events, keep students in one spot as much as possible and limit interactions within schools.
  • School districts in counties with 15-20% positive COVID-19 cases and 10% student absenteeism should consider regular health checks on students and staff, cancel school events and close communal spaces, such as cafeterias and media centers.

Districts in counties with 15% or higher positive COVID-19 rates and 10% student absenteeism may also file an application with the Iowa Department of Education requesting the district move to 100% online learning for two weeks. Those in counties with 20% or higher positive rates may also apply, as long as healthcare capacity is a concern.

Following those two weeks, school districts must reapply for another two-week exemption from the DOE.

Even if school districts reach the thresholds, the DOE still holds the discretion to deny those applications.

When evaluating students, the guidance recommends anyone with a cough, shortness of breath or loss of taste and smell stay home and seek medical attention. 

Students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 may return to school if symptoms improve 10 days since they started and they also are fever-free for 24 hours.

School districts are required to notify the Iowa Department of Public Health if a student or staff member has been exposed to someone with the virus. The state is defining exposure as spending more than 15 minutes within 6 feet of someone who tests positive. Districts will also identify close contacts, quarantine exposed students and staff and provide a list of close contacts to the IDPH.

Meanwhile, the IDPH will recommend quarantining for all members of that household.

Even if an exposed student tests negative for COVID-19, it’s still recommended they quarantine for 14 days because of the virus’s incubation period.

Meanwhile, staff considered “critical” personnel may return to work even if they are exposed, if there are shortages at the building and they are asymptomatic. If symptoms do develop, they are required to quarantine.

Linh Ta
Reporter Linh Ta comes to Iowa Capital Dispatch from the Des Moines Register, where she covered trending news, public safety and the suburbs. Most recently, she has covered retail business and followed both national and local trends to provide insight about the issues that matter the most to Iowans. Beyond traditional journalism, Ta has worked as a speech coach with the Des Moines Storytellers Project with the goal of sharing the diverse perspectives of Iowans from all walks of life. She is the 2019 winner of the Young Iowa Journalist Award and the winner of an Iowa Broadcast News Award. Email her at [email protected]patch.com or follow her on Twitter @linhmaita.