How can you have any football if you don’t go to class in person?

Students marched from Roosevelt High School to Terrace Hill on Sept. 7 to protest the cancellation of sports and activities due to the district's virtual start to the school year. (Photo by Des Moines Public Schools)

If you’re too sick to go to school, you can’t go outside and play. If you don’t finish your homework, you can’t watch TV. If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?

That last part was borrowed from Pink Floyd, but the sentiment mirrors the other rules of our household when I was growing up. So it wasn’t a surprise to hear the same message from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds last week: If students can’t attend classes in person because of the threat of COVID-19, they can’t participate in extracurricular activities, either.

“Our policy regarding sports is if a school or district must temporarily move to remote learning due to public health conditions, then in person extracurricular activities must be suspended during that time for the same reason to avoid the risk of virus spread both for the home teams, players, coaches and fans, and for the visiting teams as well,” Reynolds said Thursday. “If students can’t be in school safely, it makes no sense to have in-person extracurricular activities. We believe that those same mitigation strategies should apply. And I think that most parents, schools and Iowans understand that that is a common-sense approach.”

It is a common-sense approach. But it also was a shot across the bow at Des Moines Public Schools, the only district in the state that has not had a “return to learn” plan approved by the state.  On Labor Day, hundreds of students, athletes, coaches and others marched from Roosevelt High School to Terrace Hill, the governor’s mansion, to protest their exclusion from sports. Ames and Iowa City’s school districts, which have received state-approved waivers to start classes 100% online, also have had sports suspended until students return to classes in person.

It’s another way to apply pressure to Des Moines district officials, who even after losing in court are still resisting what seems an inevitability at this point: Students have to return to in-person classes. The school board, after debating for nearly three hours last week, is scheduled to meet again Tuesday to vote on a course of action.

There are a lot of things Reynolds has said and done about the coronavirus that don’t make sense to many Iowans, especially her refusal to either impose face-covering mandates or allow local governments to do so in public places. Perhaps we could have avoided some of these expensive lawsuits if she had taken this simple, low-cost and highly effective step to curb the spread of the virus before Iowa became one of the top hot spots in the nation.

Reynolds’ approval rating related to her management of the pandemic has taken a shelling, according to a 50-state survey by researchers from Northeastern University, Rutgers, Harvard University and Harvard Medical School.

Iowa was listed among a dozen states whose governors had “notably low approval ratings, below 40%. Reynolds’ rating in the survey dropped from 52% approving or strongly approving in late April to only 26% in late August.  Even with a high margin of error of 7 percentage points, that’s eye-opening.

I can only surmise that part of the problem with Reynolds’ rating, at least the part that extends beyond politics, is her tendency to mix her messages. She has repeatedly urged Iowans to be “responsible” and wear masks at public gatherings where social-distancing isn’t possible.  And yet she appeared recently at a big GOP fundraiser where hundreds of people were sitting close together indoors, with few masks in sight.

She has been the head cheerleader for the return to sports, including allowing and encouraging spring extracurricular activities and summer sports even as school districts were holding all classes remotely due to the coronavirus. It was OK back then because it was good for kids’ physical and mental health to get outdoors.

Reynolds has repeatedly held up the ability of districts to hold successful baseball and softball seasons as an argument for safe return to in-person classes. Now, she’s saying if classes can’t be held safely (which she disputes), sports also can’t be safe (even though she’s just spent months talking about how safe they are). The difference, apparently, is that back in June, the state was not trying to force districts into offering most classes in person.

She was fine with Iowa State University’s initial plan to invite 25,000 football fans into Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, even though Ames was also a national hot spot for the virus. She trusted fans to social distance even though she had to close down all the bars in the county because young adults were failing to social distance.

She said Thursday she also supported Sen. Chuck Grassley’s call to resume Big 10 football, too, even though Johnson County is also a hot spot under the same order to keep bars closed.

Reynolds is probably right that many Iowans see the common sense in her no classroom, no football rule. But too often when dealing with coronavirus, she’s trying to have her pudding and make all of Iowa eat it, too.

Kathie Obradovich
Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.