Reynolds: ‘Community context’ might outweigh COVID rates for schools

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks on students and staff returning to school this fall during her press conference on Aug. 6, 2020. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

Gov. Kim Reynolds on Thursday further narrowed the possibility that school districts might be allowed to hold 100% of classes online despite a high rate of COVID-19 infection in their county.

Reynolds, in a news conference, said state officials would consider the “community context” in school districts where the average positivity rate for the virus exceeds 15%. That “context” might provide a reason the district would be required to proceed with in-person classes.

In a proclamation last month, Reynolds specified that districts must hold at least 50% of classes in core subjects in person. Districts that defy that order would have to make up class time and education officials could face disciplinary action, she said. Department of Education Director Ann Lebo said the 50% requirement is based on legislation approved in June that specified classes be held “primarily” in person unless the governor gives permission.

The districts may apply to the Department of Education for a waiver of the 50% requirement if their county’s COVID-19 average positivity rate exceeds 15% over a 14-day period and at least 10% of students are absent. Reynolds said about seven counties in Iowa meet or exceed that 15% threshold this week.

“But that number … doesn’t always give a complete picture for school districts, which is why community context will be so important for schools to consider,” Reynolds said.

For example, she said, Webster County as of Thursday had a 14-day average positivity rate of 22%. “They’ve had, as you all are very well aware, an outbreak at the state prison there and that is a completely contained environment.”

The Fort Dodge prison has had 354 inmates and 32 staff test positive for COVID-19, she said, out of a total of 768 positive cases in the county. Of those cases, 424 have recovered, Reynolds said.

“So that’s why it’s going to be extremely important, as I said earlier, for schools to work closely with the Department of Education, Department of Public Health officials to get a sense of the level of community spread impacting schools and where it’s coming from.”

A reporter asked by Reynolds whether any of the school districts in counties above the 15% threshold should start school online only. “Well, we’re going to take a look at that,” she said, noting there are still couple of weeks to go before most schools return.

“Webster County, yes, I think they should make every effort to get those kids back to school,” she said.

Reynolds brought in three speakers from the Cardinal school district in Wapello County who spoke about why they believe in-person classes are important for students.

Superintendent Joel Pedersen said the district needs to see students in person to assess how they are doing and whether there are unmet needs ranging from physical and mental health issues, abuse homes or even a need for new pair of shoes. “We need to get eyes on these kids,” he said.

He asked Iowans for “grace” for educators. “There are no perfect answers here. There are no solutions that we know are going to work 100 percent. But we need you to give us grace.”