Reynolds: Des Moines students risk being ‘left behind’ through online learning

Gov. Kim Reynolds publicly urged the Des Moines district Sept. 10 to work with the state on offering mostly in-person classes. (Photo by Getty Images)

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds says she’s hopeful that state officials and the Des Moines Public Schools will soon come to terms on a plan that results in the district “complying with Iowa law” by having its students return to the classroom.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the students in Iowa’s largest school district began the school year with classes conducted online. That puts the district at odds with a state law that requires a waiver from requirement that all Iowa schools offer classroom instruction as the primary means of education.

Des Moines is the only Iowa school district that has yet to implement a “Return to Learn” plan that conforms to the state requirement that at least 50% of instruction be provided in school classrooms.

At her press conference Thursday morning, Reynolds noted that while more affluent Iowa parents can hire tutors to assist with online learning, a high percentage of the Des Moines district’s students come from homes in economic stress, so they don’t have “the means to make (online learning) work” for them.

“I am committed to working with the Des Moines Public Schools to meet the health and education needs of our students,” Reynolds said. “And part of the reason that the Legislature and I are requiring that the primary means of instruction be in the classroom is because we know that the lack of in-person educational options disproportionately harms low-income and minority children and those living with disabilities.”

Reynolds noted that for many students, the schools provide basic needs beyond education, such as “a hot meal, a caring mentor and critically important mental health services.”

The governor said Iowa “simply cannot afford to let our students be left behind, even in these most challenging times and I know without hesitation that members of the Des Moines School Board care about these issues as well, and that’s why I’m asking them to meet with my team at the Department of Education and the Iowa Department of Public Health to work out a way to help get the district in  compliance with Iowa law.”

Des Moines Public Schools spokesman Phil Roeder responded Thursday afternoon:

“The governor’s comment ignores a very serious issue: COVID-19 has had a much greater impact on the health of low-income communities and people of color. At DMPS, where three-fourths of our enrollment qualifies for free or reduced-price meals and nearly two-thirds are students of color, the adverse impact this pandemic has on those communities matters a great deal to us. In addition, DMPS has taken great steps to close the digital divide that results because of families’ incomes, from distributing more than 20,000 laptop computers to students to connecting thousands of families with an internet hot spot or a cable modem.”

Earlier this week, Polk County Judge Jeffrey Farrell denied the Des Moines district’s request to continue, at least for now, with online instruction as the primary method of schooling while its lawsuit challenging the state requirement proceeds. The Des Moines School Board plans to meet Thursday evening to discuss how to proceed in the wake of the judge’s ruling.

Des Moines Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Ahart has said that despite Farrell’s ruling, online instruction will continue in the district “until further notice.”

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.