Des Moines dispute with Governor Reynolds could cost millions, stretch school into summer 2021

District has refused order to hold at least half of classes in-person.

Posted: Sep 20, 2020 2:56 PM
Updated: Sep 20, 2020 2:58 PM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Students in Iowa’s largest school system are facing the possibility that this most unusual school year could stretch into next summer, and the district could be hit with crippling bills because of a dispute with the governor over the safety of returning to classrooms during the coronavirus pandemic.

Des Moines school officials have repeatedly refused to abide by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ order requiring the state’s 327 school districts to hold at least half their classes in-person rather than online. For Des Moines, it’s a question of trying to keep its more than 33,000 students and 5,000 staffers from contracting the disease. But after the school board last week again voted to violate Reynolds’ order, the governor called the action “unacceptable” and began the process for punishing the district.

Reynolds has dismissed Des Moines' officials' concerns, noting that nearly all other Iowa districts have reopened their classrooms despite some virus outbreaks and the occasional need to quarantine students, saying, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

School districts across the country have struggled with the decision of whether to return to classrooms despite the risk of coronavirus infections or shift to online learning, and the choice is especially stark for Iowa's capital city. Des Moines has had one of the nation's highest rates of people testing positive for COVID-19, and school board members ask how it would be possible to enforce social distancing rules in their crowded classrooms and packed school buses.

The school board delayed the start of school by a week as the district sought a court injunction to block the governor's order, arguing that she had overstepped her authority. A judge initially sided with the governor, but the district proceeded with its plan to distribute thousands of laptops to students and launched a completely online course offering on Sept. 8.

District officials have said they’re deeply troubled to be out of compliance with state standards, but they believe the governor has put them in a no-win situation by ordering students to spend at least half their time in classroom. Reynolds' order does allow waivers allowing online-only instruction, but only for districts where more than 15% of people test positive for the virus, which is triple the 5% positivity rate that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health experts say would be appropriate for resuming in-person classes.

The district notes that 31% of its staff members have health concerns that put them at higher risk from COVID-19 and 10% are older than 60. If forced to resume classes, officials contend that many teachers and bus drivers would quit rather than risk being infected by the virus.

The positivity rate in Polk County, where most of Des Moines is located, reached 12% earlier in September but recently dropped to about 7%.

“Except for our state Department of Public Health, every other health expert we talk to doesn’t understand why we’re even having to have this fight because they recognize it isn’t safe for us to reopen our schools,” said Des Moines Superintendent Tom Ahart. “It feels like operating in an alternate reality.”

If they find the district is out of compliance, state officials could take a variety of actions, including requiring the district to keep students in classes until the end of June — nearly a month later than usual. A district official said each additional day would cost about $1.5 million, draining the district's reserves within days.

District officials have assured students that they will get credit for the online classes they’re taking, but parent Jason Hahn told school board members at a recent online meeting that he was worried they could be wrong, since the district lost the first round in its lawsuit. The longer the district continues with only online learning, the deeper the financial risk, he said.

“The end result of continuing to operate without an approved plan will likely be a district that loses accreditation and that is bankrupt,” Hahn said. “This scenario would be catastrophic for the community, the district and the students.”

Reynolds is the only Midwest governor to issue a statewide order requiring in-person instruction, with all other states in the region leaving decisions to local school districts. Reynolds, a strong supporter of President Donald Trump who has demanded on Twitter that “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL," also has refused to issue a statewide mask requirement and told at least 10 cities that they can’t enforce local mandates because they would exceed her actions.

Although Des Moines' lawsuit hasn't been resolved, a judge ruled that the state has power over school districts, even if its rationale is based on flawed coronavirus benchmarks. In a separate lawsuit, another judge sided with the state and against Iowa City schools and a teachers union, saying the governor has broad emergency powers that local school boards don't have.

The union, the Iowa State Education Association, opposed the governor's action, but a teacher walkout is unlikely because state law prohibits public employees from striking.

The state first issued its requirements to school districts in July, and at a news conference Wednesday, the governor expressed exasperation at what she called Des Moines’ “slow walk to compliance.”

Asked how the state would respond, Education Department Director Ann Lebo wouldn't be specific but said the agency would begin a process to punish the district for not complying.

“We were very hopeful to work with the district to find a solution,” Lebo said. “At this point it seems they are well into a plan that is out of compliance and will continue to do so, so we will have to initiate that process on our end.”

The school board will discuss the issue again Monday night and will consider a plan still being developed that would include a part-time return to classrooms.

Middle school Spanish teacher Trisha Peckosh, who has children in the district, said it's hard to see how the district and state will resolve the dispute. It's true that students would learn better if they were in classroom, but Des Moines is right to worry about the safety of students and staff, she said.

“Everybody is in such a hard position," she said. “Every time you come up with a solution that could work, there's a roadblock."

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 490011

Reported Deaths: 6618
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1016821593
Ramsey43388811
Dakota36714394
Anoka33545392
Washington22247262
Stearns18847202
St. Louis14915265
Scott13445107
Wright12635116
Olmsted1187890
Sherburne879474
Carver790941
Clay696288
Rice678691
Blue Earth604435
Kandiyohi582274
Crow Wing523682
Chisago502945
Otter Tail487171
Benton451890
Winona419749
Mower411931
Douglas395068
Goodhue390169
Nobles387347
Polk345363
McLeod341950
Beltrami339151
Morrison328147
Itasca315346
Becker315143
Lyon314045
Isanti310056
Steele304311
Carlton300649
Freeborn287124
Pine283616
Nicollet263341
Todd250330
Brown249137
Le Sueur238620
Mille Lacs230047
Cass221424
Waseca211217
Meeker208534
Martin190829
Wabasha18733
Roseau181017
Hubbard161041
Houston158214
Dodge15464
Renville152940
Redwood147127
Fillmore14029
Pennington139816
Chippewa137035
Cottonwood136120
Wadena131520
Faribault125017
Aitkin119233
Sibley118310
Watonwan11838
Rock116314
Kanabec109120
Pipestone101924
Yellow Medicine97817
Murray9548
Jackson94710
Swift87818
Pope8185
Marshall78715
Stevens7478
Lake74318
Clearwater72014
Lac qui Parle68816
Wilkin67711
Koochiching62111
Big Stone5173
Lincoln5122
Grant4928
Norman4808
Unassigned45368
Mahnomen4437
Kittson41121
Red Lake3615
Traverse3115
Lake of the Woods2231
Cook1190

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 337836

Reported Deaths: 5500
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk52116562
Linn19519317
Scott17180213
Black Hawk14973294
Woodbury13858214
Johnson1317875
Dubuque12452196
Dallas1023593
Pottawattamie9899146
Story965445
Warren515176
Clinton502884
Cerro Gordo501483
Webster495888
Sioux480469
Marshall465473
Des Moines428661
Muscatine426493
Buena Vista413337
Wapello4059110
Jasper388167
Plymouth369178
Lee354653
Marion341772
Jones285355
Henry279837
Bremer270655
Carroll266848
Crawford253435
Boone244830
Benton241554
Washington239247
Mahaska215846
Jackson210339
Dickinson204340
Tama203165
Kossuth198655
Delaware186340
Clay184525
Winneshiek183729
Fayette179535
Page178119
Buchanan178029
Wright174531
Hamilton173942
Cedar172923
Hardin170339
Harrison167870
Clayton160154
Butler159331
Mills148520
Floyd148141
Poweshiek148030
Cherokee146336
Lyon145741
Allamakee144948
Madison143318
Iowa140723
Hancock138030
Grundy132530
Winnebago130531
Calhoun129711
Cass129751
Jefferson128534
Appanoose123447
Louisa122644
Mitchell120740
Chickasaw119915
Union119331
Sac118818
Shelby117634
Emmet115440
Humboldt113925
Franklin109719
Guthrie109728
Palo Alto101721
Howard99722
Unassigned9790
Montgomery97036
Clarke95220
Keokuk92429
Monroe90028
Ida82132
Adair81630
Pocahontas80919
Davis76623
Monona76527
Greene73110
Lucas72321
Osceola68315
Worth6678
Taylor64112
Decatur5719
Fremont5619
Van Buren53818
Ringgold50720
Audubon4769
Wayne47521
Adams3194
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