Reynolds: Iowa schools not allowed to count unapproved remote-learning days

Published: Aug. 4, 2020 at 8:30 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 4, 2020 at 3:55 PM CDT
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JOHNSTON, Iowa (WOWT) - Gov. Kim Reynolds had scathing words Tuesday for schools prepared to defy the state’s order that 50% of classes be conducted in person once Iowa students head back to school.

Those schools considering abandoning the state’s 50% rule for reopening using Iowa Department of Public Health guidance would be defying the very guidance that they themselves requested, she said.

“I want to be very clear: Schools that choose not to return to school for at least 50% in-person instruction are not defying me; they’re defying the law,” she said.

Reynolds said the state has provided options for parents to choose remote learning but that schools aren’t allowed to do so without approval. Schools that choose to move to primarily remote learning without obtaining approval from the state, their remote-learning school days will not count toward their required instructional time, she said.

The governor gave the example of Rolling Green School in Urbandale, a year-round school, which was allowed a waiver to do remote learning for two weeks because their start day occurred very close to the state’s announcement that it would require 50% in-person learning. But an extension wasn’t given as the public health data “simply don’t warrant it at this time,” she said.

The governor does have the authority to make allowances by way of an executive order, but Reynolds said she did allow a great of flexibility, and that the decision should be in the hands of parents, not schools.

“We’ve given them plenty of flexibility,” she said. “The law is the law, and we expect our school districts to operate within the law, and that’s what it is. ... But there are consequences like everything else to not following the law.”

Schools provide an important function in reporting potential household problems, like abuse, they observe in students.

“Our teachers are mandatory reporters,” she said, noting that 15% of child abuse reports came from schools. “...And we haven’t had eyes on those kids for quite some time now.”

Reynolds said the state would work with the small number of schools — less than five, she said — to bring them into compliance with the law. But if they fail to do so, she said, their days won’t count and will have to be made up — and administrators may also be subject to discipline, she said. The governor said the state is “actively working with” the small number of school districts that have requested waivers.

The majority of schools in Iowa already have plans in place that meet the 50% in-person requirement, Reynolds said.

“These plans are creative, innovative, and adaptable and value the health and well-being of the whole student,” she said.

Experts say what’s best for kids is to be back school and in the classroom, she said, noting that “we will need to remain flexible.”

The governor noted that much has been learned “in the months since the pandemic” about how to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as well as “which populations are most and least at risk.”

Expanding the state’s testing capacity and optimizing its data platform has helped Iowa continue to make progress amid the pandemic.

“We can track virus trends in real-time,” she said. “We have the tools that we need to protect the health of our state and safely reopen our economy and our schools.”

Later in the news conference, Reynolds had equally scathing remarks for media.

“We all know that COVID-19 is a serious situation and we’re appropriately managing it as such, but the headlines would have you believe otherwise,” she said.

The governor was questioned, under the context of difficult and “sincere” school board meeting discussions, about whether she thought it was inevitable Iowa might see a child get sick or an older teacher die from COVID-19, and was asked whether it was “worth it.”

“This is part of the problem — the scare tactics that’s being laid out by the media,” she said. She later apologized for the remark, but her initial response centered around the worry of students who struggle under normal circumstances would get left behind, and noting that day cares and youth sports teams have been able to “figure it out.”

“It would be naive of us to think that at no point we’re not going to see positive cases in school districts,” she said, talking about the positive cases in long-term care facilities and the deaths of elderly Iowans.

“Do you think I as the governor I appreciate standing up here and reporting those out? We’re doing everything we can to make sure that we’re protecting the health and well-being of Iowans,” she said.

The governor said state officials have “the whole child” in mind, then talked about the struggles of parents trying to work full-time while trying to figure out a partial in-school schedule.

“How do you put together some stability with those kinds of arrangements?” she said.

“I have grandchildren going back to school. I would never put them in harm’s way intentionally,” she said, noting she also had a daughter, who’s expecting, teaching in the public school system.

After apologizing to the reporter whose question sparked her retort, she said she “the media to give the numbers in context.”

The next reporter’s question asked for contextualization of Iowa’s hospitalization numbers, asking specifically for the age breakdown of COVID-19 hospitalizations, but Reynolds and IDPH Dr. Pedati said the state wasn’t able to provide that data yet but said they are “older.”

“As the governor, I have the responsibility to not react to partially informed headlines or news stories, but to make decisions based on data and the Department of Public Health experts and the epidemiologist team,” Reynolds said. “That’s in the best interest in the lifes (sic) and livelihoods of Iowans.”

Reynolds cited the lower positivity rate and falling hospitalization numbers as signs that “Iowans are doing the right thing.” She also urged Iowans to continue taking personal responsibility for their health and for the health of others as it will help schools reopen and help businesses stay open, she said.

Gov. Reynolds news conference Q&A

Reynolds opening comments

Watch the entire news conference

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