Education legislation changes outlook of school districts

districts are preparing for the third school year since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

As summer begins for Iowa’s various school districts, administrators are taking a collective breath after a difficult school year filled with many legislative and safety changes. 

In the 2021 Iowa Legislative session, there were nearly 300 House and Senate bills introduced that focused on education, according to the Iowa Department of Education. In 2020, there were less than 200. 

The legislation covered a variety of topics, said Melissa Peterson, the government relations specialist for the Iowa State Education Association.

“What was extra challenging about this year was the deluge of topics that were taken up this legislative session that was abnormally heavy in quantity, especially at the front end of the session,” she said. “When the session started in January, we were already sprinting.” 

The first education bill to be passed in 2021 required schools to offer full-time, in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 75% of school districts in the state offered fully in-person instruction in August, Peterson said. 

One of those school districts was the Waterloo Community School District, where Chief of Human Resources and Equity Kingsley Botchway says he appreciated the initial discretion given by the state to let districts to make decisions that were best for their students.

In late May, when Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill that forbade Iowa schools, counties and cities from requiring masks, Botchway said his district pivoted to communicate the new guidelines to their 11,000 students, but had very little time to change their policies.

“We received guidance in the wee hours of the night and we were told we had to change it that day,” he said. “There were teachers that were scared that went home, and students that were scared… We spent the better part of two days dealing with the ramifications of [the legislation].”

Students were bullied for wearing masks after the new guidance was passed, Botchway said, but teachers and principals worked together to ensure all students felt safe in their schools. 

Other districts, like the Sioux City Community School District, experienced the shift in policy differently. The third biggest district in the state opened its doors to fully in-person in August with a mask mandate, Superintendent Paul Gausman said.

“We had to begin school the next day with some sense of confusion because it took us a little while to communicate with our 15,000 students and their parents and guardians,” he said. “We moved as quickly as we could, so it caused a little bit of stress that day, but after that, everything ran quite smoothly.”

Gausman and Botchway said they wish they would’ve had some advanced notice to better communicate the policy changes within their districts. 

Mandating an in-person learning option

In January, the Legislature passed a bill that required school districts to offer 100% in-person learning. In late December, the Johnston Community School District decided to return to a five day, in-person learning schedule after utilizing a hybrid and online learning model at the beginning of the school year and moving online when necessary. 

District Communications Director Laura Sprague said while the legislation didn’t immediately impact her district, it does pose a problem if case numbers radically increase in any district. 

“This is an issue where, if your numbers in your community are vastly different and you have a high case rate, the local control element is beneficial,” she said. “It’s our job to keep students and staff safe. Safety is always a priority, so to put them in a riskier situation is hard for school leaders.”

Following an outbreak at different schools in late 2020, the Postville Community School District also returned to fully in-person learning in January, a decision made prior to the legislation passing, Superintendent Tim Dugger said.

“November and December were not good for our schools,” he said. “We had about 150 kids in quarantine and at one time had eight staff members that were COVID positive. We really struggled there, and then things settled down and the second semester didn’t have any issues other than the weather.”

Eliminating voluntary diversity plans

Non-pandemic education bills also passed this session, including a bill to eliminate voluntary diversity plans in the five Iowa districts that have them. Packaged in with the “school choice” efforts, House File 228 passed in April. 

The plans allow school districts to weigh the socioeconomic or language status of students when prioritizing open enrollment applications. Davenport, Des Moines, Postville, Waterloo, and West Liberty participated in these plans. 

Dugger said his district fought to have the program in the early 2000s, and reevaluated the program a few years ago, ultimately deciding to keep it. While the Postville district has yet to see students leave in reaction to the law, Duggar is concerned about the long-term implications of eliminating this policy.

“We will lose kids long term, [but] I don’t know how many or the makeup of the students,” he said. “And every kid matters, as far as funding goes. If we see a slow decline over the years, we will have to make adjustments to our budget.”

Waterloo’s district is a different picture when it comes to these students. Botchway said he’s already seen more than 70 students open-enroll out of the district. The plan allowed Waterloo to even the playing field for students, he said, and he knew the elimination of the program would have a big impact on his district.

“Some legislators stated that this would impact our district minimally, and that was not the case,” he said. “That’s what we knew, that we had information on, but nobody asked questions and when we tried to reach out to share that information, we fell on deaf ears.” 

The Des Moines Public School District could lose hundreds of students annually, a fear for Shashank Aurora, the chief financial officer for the district. 

“The courses that our district offers are fairly unique in the state of Iowa and even at a national level,” he said. “We would hate to lose any students to another district, especially if they want to take these courses.”

Des Moines uses the plan to avoid white flight, Aurora said. There are several benefits to diverse classrooms, he said, and the canceling of these plans in the state will impact the makeup of the district’s 64 schools.

These five districts could lose up to 537 students this upcoming school year and millions in per-student funding according to the Legislative Services Agency.

Moving ahead in the 2021-22 school year

As schools close their doors for the summer, districts are preparing for the third school year since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020. Sioux City is opening a fully online school after seeing interest from various students, while other schools prepare to be fully in person. 

Johnston will not be offering 100% online learning after students’ families expressed little interest in it for the coming school year.

Districts are preparing to embrace the new normal in their schools, close potential learning gaps, and remain vigilant as the pandemic continues.

“COVID is still a real thing, so we’ll still be within precautions, but we’re back open for business,” Botchway said. “If you’re willing, please get vaccinated. Let’s move towards how we can come back and pivot out of this crisis differently.”

Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt is a third-year student at the University of Iowa where she studies journalism and mass communication and global health studies. She worked as a news reporter covering shared governance and higher education and a digital producer for The Daily Iowan since her freshman year. In the fall, she will return to the paper as a news editor. As a second-year, she hosted and co-produced "On The Record", the DI's news podcast that was named Best Podcast by the Iowa Newspaper Association.