BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – Lee County’s state elected officials are split along party lines regarding Gov. Reynolds Return to Learn mandates.
The governor is holding state school districts to the language of a Senate bill that was signed into law in June after passing the legislature almost unanimously that requires, among other things, in-person instruction to be the “presumed method of instructions”.
Specific language of the new law, Senate File 2310 (SF2310) indicates that, “Any return-to-learn plan submitted by a school district or accredited nonpublic school must contain provisions for in-person instruction and provide that in-person instruction is the presumed method of instruction.”
The law also reads, “Unless explicitly authorized in a proclamation of a public health disaster emergency issued by the governor pursuant to section 29C.6 and related to COVID-19, a brick-and-mortar school district or accredited nonpublic school shall not take action to provide instruction primarily through remote-learning opportunities.”
Reynolds’ interpretation of the law requires 50% in-person instruction in core subjects, but allows for districts experiencing more than 10% absenteeism among students and staff not engaged in total remote learning, to apply for a two-week waiver in counties where districts are also seeing COVID positivity rates higher than 15%.
The bill moved through the Senate on June 13 with a 49-0 vote and passed the House the same day with a 95-0 tally. Of the 39 lobbyists declaring on the bill, five, representing two groups, the Iowa Association of School Boards, and the Area Education Agencies of Iowa declared their support for the bill. The other 34 declarations were undecided. Several lobbyists declared for multiple organizations.
State Rep. Jeff Kurtz (D-Fort Madison) said he believes Reynolds is operating within the law, but he said the impact of the coronavirus changes daily and student and staff safety should be the driving force of schools and government.
“We have a difference of interpretation on 2310 from the Governor,” Kurtz said.
“I believe we should err on the side of caution when it comes to the safety of our children, teachers, and support staff in our school. I would hope the Governor looks at it that way, also,” Kurtz said.
“There’s so much angst and I have some real problems with all of this. I don’t think we need to compound these problems by seeing another outbreak.”
He said he’s spoken with area educators who said they would like to have a little more local control.
“I think I have one person who said they wanted to go back, but everybody else is saying the first thing we need to think about is safety.”
Kurtz said when voting for the bill he didn’t think it would be enforced so literally and there would flexibility in the language.
Kurtz is a former rail worker who represented union workers and said those contracts were subject to change depending on the situation.
“Sure you had it written down, but things would change and you couldn’t live up to the letter of what you signed so you adjust. And there’s room for adjustment here,” he said.
But State Rep. Joe Mitchell (R-Wayland) said the governor is working within the law and relying on experts in the field in making her decisions.
“I think it’s appropriate. She’s got a lot of super smart people she’s surrounded herself with to make sure kids are going back in a safe and responsible manner,” he said Wednesday.
“I’m behind what’s she’s doing. It’s so important that kids are inside the classroom and learning in person. There are a lot of kids with mental health disorders and disabilities that need to be in the classroom.”
Mitchell said the party line controversy that has surfaced after Reynolds said she was going to enforce the law was strange considering the bill passed the legislature without opposition.
“Nobody reads every bill – that’s crazy, but you trust people in your caucus to go over the bill,” he said. “If you’re in the minority, you have a ranking member on the bill who speaks on behalf of the bill and you trust those people to know what’s in the bill. You also have lawyers on the caucus staff and they go detail by detail to see if there are any red flags.”
Mitchell said students, especially younger students need routines and that can only happen if they are engaged in in-person learning.
Kurtz said he thinks there’s room in the new law for interpretation and the governor needs to give heavier consideration to safety from the virus.
“The things I’ve been reading is that this might be like chicken pox, where the virus stays with you and can cause further health problems,” he said.
“This could manifest itself into something else and we really need to err on the side of caution. Right now, we’re interpreting it too literally.”
Fort Madison Community School District is holding it’s first trimester with students in A or B groups alternating school weeks beginning with 1/2 day for B students on Aug. 21. The hybrid instruction plan is only for the first trimester currently.
Families were also able to choose a 100% on line learning model for that trimester as well. The first trimester ends on Nov. 13.
Holy Trinity Catholic is beginning the year with all students back in class, however, options are available for families to choose hybrid learning with alternating sessions on site and remote learning, or complete online learning. Students will have temperatures checked daily on arrival.
Central Lee schools also have the face to face option, a hybrid model and an online-only model to start the year, with an anticipation of having all students back in school starting Aug. 24.