Advocates criticize Des Moines school board vote to continue online learning for now

Des Moines Public Schools staff prepare for student laptop pickup at Hoover High School. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Public Schools)

Advocates who help families of color and refugees in the Des Moines area said they disapprove of the Des Moines school board’s decision to continue online learning for now, which they argue disproportionately hurts non-white families and those in lower socioeconomic conditions.

The Des Moines school board voted Tuesday to move to a hybrid learning model that would comply with the state’s 50% in-person requirement.

However, the school district will continue to offer 100% virtual learning until Polk County’s COVID-19 infection rate is under 5% — a number that’s been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, but significantly lower than the state’s 15% threshold for moving to online learning. Polk County’s two-week average rate of positive COVID-19 cases was 7.4% as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the state’s data.

“I feel like we have two clear objectives as a board,” said Des Moines school board member Rob Barron. “One is to get our community on a path towards bringing kids back into our buildings. The other is to listen to the staff who are worried about their health and safety when they’re back in that building.

”We are balancing two very, very opposing interests that are derived from the same place,” Barron said. “We all want to return to normalcy and we all want consistency to get there.”

The decision to not allow students back into Des Moines school buildings will disproportionately hurt the district’s most at-need families, who may already be suffering mentally and economically from COVID-19, said Izaah Knox, executive director of Urban Dreams, a non-profit that provides human service programs.

“Learning loss is real and that also affects poor and Black and brown kids at a higher rate than the other ones,” Knox said. “We’re at six months where kids haven’t had adequate education.”

Des Moines is the only school district that does not have a state-approved plan in place for its use of online classes.

During her press conference on Thursday, Gov. Kim Reynolds criticized the Des Moines school board for continuing online learning until Polk County is under a 5% infection rate.

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during a news conference Sept. 16, 2020, at Iowa PBS. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

She acknowledged the difficulties families, and particularly people of color may be facing, as they try to balance having their kids at home while also working.

“My message to the parents of Des Moines is that we’ll continue fighting for you to get the kids back in the classroom again, safely and responsibly, but now is the time for your voices to be heard,” Reynolds said.

Ann Lebo, director of the Department of Education, suggested the agency is starting the process to issue citations to Des Moines schools for noncompliance.

School districts that don’t adhere to the state’s mandate may have to make up the virtual school days at the end of the year and administrators could face disciplinary action.

‘They did not prepare the parents or the students’

A survey conducted by Des Moines schools in May showed more than 70% of families were willing to participate in a hybrid model where students go between online and in-person classes.

Knox said the decision to bring students back or not should be up to parents.

Izaah Knox is executive director of Urban Dreams in Des Moines. (Photo courtesy of Urban Dreams)

Knox wrote an open letter to the Des Moines school board and Superintendent Tom Ahart saying COVID-19 has already disproportionately hurt families of color and the “burden” of managing virtual schooling should not also be added.

Though marginalized communities may face more health risks and are more likely to contract COVID-19, the health disparities they face are not a “predisposition,” but rather, “social detriments of health,” such as lack of education on mitigating the virus.

He said students should return and teachers can educate on mitigation measures instead, such as wearing face masks and washing hands.

“We should be role modeling those things,” Knox said.

The digital and technology divide also hurts kids’ ability to learn from home, including low-income or refugee families, said Nancy Mwirotsi, the mother of a Des Moines student. She’s the founder of PI 515, which teaches students technology skills. Refugee families may not have an adult who can help with navigating virtual classrooms or equipment problem, she said.

Mwirotsi, who works with Des Moines’ refugee community, said while some students may know how to use cell phones or TikTok, there’s a different learning curve to navigating online learning. Through her organization, she said she’s had to teach students how to send emails or upload documents.

The Des Moines school survey from May showed that while the majority of students had technology at home, families of Black male students were more likely to lack devices for students. The survey showed 5.6% of these families did not have reliable technology and 8.6% did not have reliable internet access.

About 18% of students reported difficulties using the online learning model in the spring.

“The school board decision yesterday did not account for how much preparation they haven’t done,” Mwirotsi said Wednesday. “They did not prepare the parents or the students, either.”

Mwirotsi said she was “puzzled” by the decision to continue online learning and said the district needs to acknowledge technology gaps if it wants to remain 100% online.

“It’s very disappointing,” Mwirotsi said. “I don’t know who they’re speaking out for because they’re not equally speaking out for every parent.”

Linh Ta
Reporter Linh Ta comes to Iowa Capital Dispatch from the Des Moines Register, where she covered trending news, public safety and the suburbs. Most recently, she has covered retail business and followed both national and local trends to provide insight about the issues that matter the most to Iowans. Beyond traditional journalism, Ta has worked as a speech coach with the Des Moines Storytellers Project with the goal of sharing the diverse perspectives of Iowans from all walks of life. She is the 2019 winner of the Young Iowa Journalist Award and the winner of an Iowa Broadcast News Award. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @linhmaita.