Des Moines schools headed to court after state denies online-learning request

Students study in a classroom. (Photo by Getty Images)

The Des Moines school district will be seeking court intervention in response to the state’s rejection of its request to start the school year entirely online.

The Iowa Department of Education denied the Des Moines school district’s request to start the school year with 100% online learning — adding Iowa’s largest public school district to the list of Iowa schools that have been denied permission.

The request was denied on Thursday, said Heather Doe, spokesperson for the department. She did not say what the department would do if the school district decides to continue moving forward with 100% online learning.

Next week, the Des Moines school district plans on seeking an injunction and a court review regarding the department’s decision to reject its request. The case will likely center on whether the state or locally elected school board members have the authority to make such decisions.

In a written statement, Pat Garrett, communications director for Gov. Kim Reynolds, said, “Gov. Reynolds is disappointed to hear that the Des Moines Public School System plans to sue the state rather than to work cooperatively to develop a Return to Learn plan that complies with the law and meets the educational and health needs of Iowa’s children.”

Garrett said “the state will continue assisting school districts in safely returning teachers and students to the classroom.”

The school district’s decision to seek an injunction comes as the Iowa City school district and the Iowa State Education Association pursue a lawsuit against the state over the same issue. In that lawsuit, the teachers’ union and the Iowa City City schools allege the state has overstepped its authority by denying school boards the right to determine whether students should move to online learning.

“Unfortunately, the governor and her agencies have decided to ignore the local decision-making authority set out in the law to try and force their will on school districts to do things we all know are simply not safe at this time,” said Kyrstin Delagardelle, chair of the Des Moines School Board, in a news release. “Since DMPS submitted our Return to Learn plan on July 1, after nearly two months of planning, it has become clear that we need less, not more, in-person instruction so that we can resume learning in a way that supports the health and well-being of our students, staff, and their families.”

Doe said the Department of Education’s decision to decline Des Moines’ request does not impact the district’s ability to provide online classes for families who have chosen 100% remote learning. “The goal of Iowa’s Return To Learn Plan is safe in-person learning with flexibility for school districts while also ultimately allowing parents to choose what’s best for their child,” she said.

On July 1, Iowa school districts were required to submit their “return to learn” plans to the Iowa Department of Education, detailing their plans for students to return to class in the fall. Those plans varied throughout the state, ranging from a 100% online learning plan in Iowa City to the Des Moines schools’ plan of offering in-person instruction one day per week.

Then, a little over two weeks later, Reynolds issued a proclamation requiring schools to provide 50% of their instruction in person, leaving some school districts scrambling to reconfigure their plans.

On July 30, Reynolds announced the thresholds that school districts must meet before they can request approval to move to virtual classes. The requirements include a 15% community infection rate and 10% student absenteeism.

Des Moines schools still plan on starting the school year 100% online, while also offering sports and extracurricular activities.