Reynolds signs bill requiring all schools to offer 100% in-person attendance

Gov. Kim Reynold speaks to a child before signing legislation requiring schools to offer a 100% in-person attendance option to students. (Screen shot from WOI-TV livesteam)

Gov Kim Reynolds on Friday signed her first bill of the 2021 legislative session, giving Iowa school districts until Feb. 15 to offer a choice of 100% in-person class attendance to students.

Reynolds proposed the bill in her Condition of the State message Jan. 12 after hearing from parents around the state who worried about the effect on their employment and student performance of having children learning from home full- or part-time.

“It’s time to put local control into the hands of parents where it belongs, so that they can choose what’s best for their children,” Reynolds said before signing the bill.

“The bill does not deny any family the option to keep their children home for 100% remote learning, nor does it prevent schools from offering a hybrid model,” Reynolds said. “It simply offers a choice for those families … who know that for their children, being at school every day with their teachers and peers is best for their overall growth and development.”

Lawmakers said 15 public school districts and one private school are currently not allowing full-time attendance. Many of those are larger, urban districts where officials say class sizes are too large to allow for social distancing.

Phil Roeder, a spokesman for Des Moines Public Schools, said the district will begin offering a 100% in-person attendance option by Feb. 15, as well as an all-virtual option. However, the district will no longer offer the hybrid option that about 60% of students are currently using.

“No one wants to see students back in school more than those of us in education. At the same time, we still need to balance the work in our local schools with the impact of a global pandemic,” Roeder said.

Des Moines schools will require face masks for the rest of the year and the schools have installed “thousands” of hand sanitizers and made changes in air circulation, Roeder said. “At the same time, with 20 or more students in classrooms, social distancing will not be feasible,” he said.

Republicans in the Legislature fast-tracked Senate File 160, with both the House and Senate approving it on Thursday night. The legislation allows schools to request a waiver from full-time, in-person instruction based on an emergency proclamation or COVID-19 spread in their area.

Democrats in the Legislature argued Thursday that while everyone wants students back in class, it’s not safe in all parts of the state.

Reynolds pushed back at arguments that districts need more state aid to manage COVID mitigation. She said $310 million in federal CARES Act money will go directly to schools to help offset costs associated with the pandemic, and the state has also provided districts with personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

She also delivered a partisan defense in response to critics of overall state support for schools, in light of debate over her controversial proposal to expand state support for families sending children to nonpublic schools.

“Since Republicans gained majorities in both the House and the Senate education, funding has grown by $360 million. In fact, the last time that education funding was cut, the state was controlled by a Democratic governor and Democrats had control of both the House and the Senate,” she said.

The Iowa Senate narrowly approved Reynolds’ plan Thursday to give scholarships to students who leave underperforming schools for nonpublic options. The bill also expands the opportunities to establish charter schools and removes barriers to open enrollment. The bill still needs approval by the Iowa House.

“A strong public school system is imperative and my education reform bill has the potential to raise the quality of all schools,” she said. “Every child deserves a quality education, regardless of income and no matter their ZIP code. And when a school is failing a child, parents should have the ability to change the course of your child’s education for the better.”

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.