Infections grow at a state-run school while districts struggle with Reynolds’ mandate

An illustration of a coronavirus, created for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Image by Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM)

As Iowa school districts struggle to meet state demands for in-person classroom instruction, the state-run school in Eldora is continuing to see a spread of COVID-19.

At the Boys State Training School in Eldora, where students attend classes and reside on campus in cottages, the number of students and workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 has grown rapidly since the first worker there tested positive on July 20.

Two weeks ago, on July 28, a total of 23 Eldora students and staffers had tested positive. As of Monday, that number had more than doubled to 50, with students accounting for 26 of the 50 cases. According to the Iowa Department of Human Services, 20 of the 26 students have now recovered. Of the 24 infected staff members, 17 have recovered.

According to DHS, the total number of students on the Eldora campus this year has typically been about 70, and on July 31, the peak of the outbreak, 20 of those students — representing 29% of the total student population — were considered positive for COVID-19. That suggests an infection rate almost three times the level required of school districts that seek a waiver from Gov. Kim Reynolds’ order that they offer primarily in-person classroom instruction.

Under the governor’s interpretation of a new state law, Iowa school districts can request a temporary waiver allowing them to move all instruction online, but only if 10% or more of the students are absent and a 14-day average shows at least 15% of the county’s residents who have been screened for COVID-19 have tested positive.

While the infection rate in Eldora easily surpassed the 10% threshold, the school is in Hardin County, where the 14-day average for positive tests has hovered around 9% — well below the threshold for seeking a waiver.

State records show that two weeks ago, 85 residents and workers at Iowa’s six DHS-run care facilities, including the school in Eldora, had tested positive for COVID-19. Today, that number is 113, reflecting an increase of 33 percent in just 14 days, with the Eldora school accounting for almost all of that increase.

The records illustrate how quickly COVID-19 spread on the Eldora campus: On July 29, there were eight workers and 14 students who were positive for COVID-19. Within 48 hours, there were 13 positive staff members and 20 positive students.

In a written summary of its mitigation efforts at the school, DHS officials said in June they had “deep cleaned and disinfected” the residential cottages at the school, students were being “offered” masks, and nurses were explaining the importance of various hygiene measures.

In March, Disability Rights Iowa and Drake University’s Center for Children’s Rights wrote to Reynolds and Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen to share concerns about the safety of Iowa youth now living in detention facilities, group care and the Eldora home.

At the time, they said the state had yet to provide children in state care the same sort of protective measures now used by the Iowa Department of Corrections to protect adult criminal offenders housed in prisons.

The advocacy groups argued that youth in congregate living are not able to protect themselves through social distancing, frequent hand washing, or remaining in sanitized locations. They asked Reynolds and Christensen to limit new admissions to the facilities and immediately discharge those on the verge of being released. Since then, DHS has suspended admissions at Eldora and taken other steps designed to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Here’s a look at the total number of infections, to date, for each of the six DHS-run facilities, and an indication of how the numbers have changed since July 28:

Eldora Boys State Training School: 50 cases (up from 23)

Woodward Resource Center: 53 cases (no change)

Glenwood Resource Center: 5 cases (all are staff; no change)

Civil Commitment Unit for Sex Offenders: 2 cases (both are staff; no change)

Cherokee Mental Health Institute: 1 case (staff; no change)

Independence Mental Health Institute: 2 cases (both are staff; up from 1)

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.