ICCSD at square one, unsure what fall instruction will entail

After Gov. Reynolds’ proclamation requiring 50 percent of curriculum taught in-person, Iowa City Community School District is forced to revisit its plan to continue remote education.


Jake Maish

A sign for the Iowa City Community School District is seen outside the district's administration building on Tuesday, April 28.

Rachel Schilke, News Reporter

Iowa City schools will seek a waiver to hold classes online following a proclamation by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds July 17 that halted the district’s original plans to hold instruction entirely online until Oct. 1.

Reynolds’ proclamation requires at least 50 percent of classes to be delivered in person, despite asking school districts across Iowa to submit four instruction plans of their own, one being for fully remote instruction, by July 1. The requirement has sent Iowa schools back to the drawing board to determine how to prioritize in-person instruction and maintain the health and safety of students and teachers.

The Iowa City Community School District decided July 14 that it would begin the fall online, but Reynolds’ proclamation may now reverse that decision, leaving Iowa City administrators unsure of how to proceed.

Iowa City Community School District Superintendent Matt Degner said in an email to families that administrators were surprised by the abrupt timing of the proclamation, as additional guidelines released in the proclamation were not initially provided in the Iowa Department of Education’s Return-to-Learn guidelines.

The proclamation states that virtual instruction may be allowed if a parent or guardian voluntarily selects the option, and schools intending to move to online-only instruction obtain approval from the Iowa Departments of Health and Education, though the proclamation doesn’t specify what criteria would allow a school to obtain a waiver from the department.

RELATED: Iowa City Community School District Board discusses four models for returning to school

Iowa City school board president Shawn Eyestone said the district would seek a waiver, in a joint meeting with the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, local municipalities, and Johnson County Public Health officials on Monday.

Eyestone said after discussions with local teachers’ unions and students’ parents, the district decided to deliver instruction online to give families and teachers ample time to plan ahead. Many community members expressed their thanks for the district taking their health and safety into consideration, he said.

“There is a chance to seek a waiver, and we will seek it,” Eyestone said. “I don’t know if any of us have real strong hope that it will be met, but we are going to seek the waiver regardless.”

The Iowa City Community School District is currently working on a hybrid model to ensure it meets the 50-percent threshold dictated in Reynolds’ proclamation, he said, but lack of a definition as to what the 50 percent means will make it difficult to determine if the district is meeting it.

Degner said many teachers, administrators, and support staff were already working hard on online-only plans for the fall, and that the new hybrid plan was now necessary to ensure the health and safety of students and faculty. Degner’s statement noted the district would release more information as soon as it found out.

Media representative for the Iowa Department of Education Heather Doe said Reynolds’ proclamation does not reverse the Return-to-Learn guidelines but helps define what is an “ongoing and fluid response.”

According to the proclamation, Reynolds did not provide any requirements on wearing face coverings in schools, but she said she and public health officials expect to release what parameters will allow schools to move to remote learning in early August.

The Iowa Department of Education and the Department of Public Health are working on guidelines for schools to help manage coronavirus activity if positive cases grow among teachers and students, Doe said, and they will be sent to Iowa school districts in early August.

Iowa City Community School District is not alone in its uncertainty. Clear Creek Amana School District in Tiffin, Iowa — which initially planned for primarily online instruction — no longer has a plan of action for the upcoming school year.

Clear Creek Amana board member Tim Kuehl said primary virtual instruction and virtual classes for secondary students are now off the table. The school is supposed to release a statement on its new learning methods by July 29, he said.

Parent opinions across the Iowa City community are numerous and varied. Many worry how in-person instruction will affect their jobs, lives, and the safety and education of their children.

Iowa City parent Brandy Mitchell, who works at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics as an outpatient nurse practitioner, said she understands firsthand the dangers of COVID-19 and steps to prevent spreading the disease.

“When I leave and go to work, I spend my day in a face mask and shield to protect my family,” Mitchell said. “My kids are at home, and I am the person we were worried about affecting them. Now, my children could be the ones affected.”

She added that her children’s 94-year-old great-grandparent lives with them, so sending her children back to school would not only put them in danger, but it would take away any control she had over bringing the virus home. Online instruction for her children, who will attend Iowa City High in the fall, was her family’s best option, she said.

“It’s basic epidemiology,” Mitchell said. “Our state’s statistics [for COVID-19] are awful, there is no doubt. Within the first week, school staff could all be infected. It makes no sense to put that many at risk. I would love my children to be in school, but I also want my children to be safe. Even in just two days, there is no way they would not come into contact with someone who asymptomatically has the disease.”

Mitchell said she felt incredibly frustrated when she heard Reynolds’ proclamation, and that now families and educators will have to figure things out on a whim rather than in a controlled and prepared environment.

“Our education system and teachers have been working so hard to develop plans on how to teach children virtually and do this safely,” she said. “Having a politician step in and dictate how they are going to do this made no sense to me.”

For many families, navigating online instruction is impractical. Iowa City parent Brea Colsch said she was concerned about children of any age learning on a computer screen all day. Her children have different learning styles, Colsch said, so they would not be participating in a 100-percent online curriculum if that becomes an option.

“I have concerns over not just my children, but all children in the area going back to school,” Colsch said. “However, I don’t think staying inside our houses for days, weeks, and months is the answer. COVID-19 is not going anywhere and I think we need to start thinking collaboratively as a community.”

Eyestone said parents in the district were sent a survey in June to gauge whether they would feel comfortable with students returning to in-person education.

Colsch said the survey results conflicted with the district’s decision to instruct online-only, which made parents feel extremely frustrated and unheard.

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