Parts of nearly two dozen Iowa school districts exceed 15% positivity rate for COVID-19

Iowa's teachers union and school board association are raising concerns about the state's policies for allowing online courses this fall. (Photo by Getty Images)

Nearly two dozen of Iowa’s 327 school districts include at least one county where more than 15% of coronavirus tests were positive over the past two weeks.

Joining those 23 districts are 15 more that include at least one county with a COVID-19 test two-week positivity rate of 15%.

Pat Garrett, spokesman for Gov. Kim Reynolds, did not immediately reply to a question about how the state will compute a positivity rate for districts that are in multiple counties. 

Districts which include counties that had positivity rates above 15% as of Thursday were: AHSTW (Avoca), Boyer Valley, Clarion, Clarke, Eagle Grove, Exira-Elk Horn-Kimballton, Fort Dodge, Gilmore City-Bradgate, Harlan, Humboldt,  IKM-Manning, I-35 (Truro), Luverne, Manson Northwest Webster, Mormon Trail, Murray, Prairie Valley, Stratford. Tri-Center, Twin Rivers, West Bend-Mallard, and Woodbine. 

The high rates and Reynolds’ departure from national and international health guidelines has organizations representing teachers and school boards demanding more local control.

Reynolds has said that districts may apply for a waiver to hold classes online if their counties have a 15% positive COVID-19 rate in a two-week period and 10% of students are absent. Reynolds noted Thursday that many districts are a couple of weeks away from starting classes, so they don’t have absences yet.

Districts in counties with 20% and above may also request temporarily closing buildings or the whole district.

Teachers’ union: Prison guards mingle in the community

On Thursday, Reynolds said those figures might not be enough if the “community context” suggests the risk is limited. For example, she said Webster County, which includes Fort Dodge, has a 22% positivity rate in part because of cases among prisoners at the state prison there.

Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, which represents teachers, said prison guards and nursing home workers, along with teachers, students and school staff members, come into contact with community members as they shop for groceries or go to church, for example. 

The Fort Dodge state prison, for example, reports that 27 inmates and four staff members have COVID-19, while 324 inmates and 28 staff have recovered from the illness. Some of the staff data were self-reported, the prison noted.

ISEA considers Reynolds’ stance on waivers an affront to local control, and one based on metrics her office has declined to explain to ISEA.

“There is an incredible need for local control that allows districts to make the decision which is appropriate for them,” Beranek said.

Surgeon general’s guidelines for school reopening call for lower infection rates

The one statewide mandate that would help is an order to require all Iowans to wear face coverings in public, to protect all Iowans, Beranek said. 

Reynold’s proclamation ordering schools to have in-person classes as much as possible — and threatening the licenses of those who don’t comply — is at odds with health officials outside of Iowa.

For example, the World Health Organization recommends reopening of various facilities only if infection rates are under 5%. Surgeon General Jerome Adams recommended schools reopen if infection rates remain under 10%.

Beranek said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has discussed school districts moving to online learning if test results were positive at a rate of 5% to 10% over two weeks. 

The state’s metrics and guidelines from the Iowa Department of Education and the Iowa Department of Public Health “are not based in science. We don’t understand where these metrics came from,” Beranek said.

The New York Times reported that California schools would shut down if 5% of staff and students test positive. In New York City, a school would close if two cases of COVID-19 in unrelated classrooms were confirmed. In Mississippi, schools are allowed to consider “dismissal” if at least three classrooms have simultaneous outbreaks.

Many big-city school districts, including Los Angeles, plan to start the year with online instruction only. 

President Trump has encouraged the reopening of schools and has threatened to withhold federal funding if they aren’t open, the Times reported.

ISEA has endorsed guidelines that call for in-person classes only when the pandemic is under control, protections are in place to keep it that way, and plans are developed to make sure learning isn’t disrupted.

School boards call for local control

The Iowa Association of School Boards said the “community context” Reynolds cites is all the more reason to have local control. The association added that other states are shying away from in-person classes at far lower levels, typically anything above 5% positivity rates with full testing. 

“IASB believes school boards need local control to make the best decisions for their school communities,” the association said in a statement. “Local school board members and administrators know their own communities best and need the authority to quickly pivot to primarily remote learning if the need arises, without an approval process through state agencies. 

“The governor’s proclamation of July 17 and the guidance announced on July 30 appear to restrict this local decision making based on local conditions,” the association added.

Reynolds has said the state is pushing the issue on reopening in part because 237 Iowa school districts are in more than one county. That means a district could get different orders or advice from multiple counties, which could cause problems. Reynolds has said it is important for the educational and mental health of students for them to return to class. 

At a news conference last week, State Epidemiologist Caitlin Pedati noted that Iowans under the age  of 18 have only accounted for 7% of Iowa’s positive COVID-19 tests. However, as of Thursday, Iowans ages 18 to 60, which would include many teachers and staff members, have accounted for 77% of cases.

Schools suspended operations last spring under Reynolds’ order due to the spread of the coronavirus. 

The Iowa Department of Public Health reported as of Thursday, four counties — Webster (22%), Clarke (17%), Humboldt (17%) and Shelby (16%) were seeing more than 15% of coronavirus tests come back positive over the most recent two-week period.  

Fort Dodge schools will hold in-person classes   

Fort Dodge schools spokeswoman Jennifer Lane said the district in Webster County plans to hold in-person classes beginning Aug. 25. 

We do not plan to recommend to our school board to request a waiver to begin the school year online,” Lane said. “We do not believe the 22% positivity rate is an accurate reflection of community spread in Webster County. 

“We will continue to monitor the data and work with (public health officials) as new data and guidance becomes available,” Lane added.

The website for the Humboldt school district listed an Aug. 26 start date for classes. Humboldt spans three counties with positivity rates of 22%, 17% and 11%.