Republican majority to push for fully in-person option at Iowa schools

Republicans in the Iowa Legislature will attempt to require that schools offer a fully in-person option for instruction. Some Democrats want to ensure that teachers and school staff are vaccinated before further expanding in-person instruction.


Ryan Adams

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver stands during the opening of the 2021 legislative session on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021 at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. Legislative goals for the session include further tax cuts, expanding in-person learning, and moving towards economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Caleb McCullough, Managing Editor

Republican lawmakers in Iowa will push to require that K-12 students have the option to take fully in-person classes, as high COVID-19 positivity rates throughout the fall pushed some schools to pivot to hybrid or fully online instruction.

Over the summer, Gov. Kim Reynolds required schools to offer at least 50 percent of their instruction in person and set up a system for schools to apply for waivers to move online. Parents could also opt to have their children receive 100 percent online education.

Reynolds said in a forum with reporters on Jan. 7 that she wants to see students have the option to have 100 percent of their instruction in person.

“Right now we’ve given parents the choice to go 100 percent online, which I believe we need to continue that choice,” Reynolds said on Jan. 7. “But I also believe that parents and students — we can do it safely and responsibly — need to have the option to be 100 percent in the classroom.”

As the legislative session opened Monday, Republican leaders said that reopening schools and allowing for full instruction would be a top priority of the session, and that it would improve education outcomes and children’s mental health, which have both suffered under the pandemic.

“Despite the pandemic, we must not sacrifice the future of our children,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver said in his remarks at the opening of the session on Monday. “We cannot let a generation of kids fall behind in school. Kids learn better when they are in school, in classrooms, in person, instead of in front of a screen. The longer they are out of school, the more their skills deteriorate and the further they fall behind.”

Expanding in-person instruction has the potential for bipartisan consensus under the golden dome, but Democrats said the vital piece would be ensuring teachers and school staff are vaccinated before requiring schools to offer in-person instruction.

State Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, who is on the House Education Committee, said every teacher she knows wants to see students return to schools. She said Democrats also want to see more in-person instruction, but that it needs to be done in a responsible way.

“We need the vaccinations,” Mascher said. “We need teachers vaccinated and school staff vaccinated and to make sure there’s enough substitutes and people available.”

The change would require several school districts in Iowa to alter their schedule practices. The Iowa City Community School District, for example, currently offers an online option and a “standard enrollment” option, which is primarily hybrid instruction. Under the proposal, the district would also have to offer an option for students to take all of their classes in person five days a week.

Iowa City School Board Member Lisa Williams said the push to require in-person instruction is not what the Legislature should be focusing on in education. She said the move is a one-size-fits-all approach to a localized issue, and school districts should have the final say in their education methods.

“This is another example of the Legislature continuing to erode the concept of local control, which I find odd coming from the Republican-controlled Legislature,” Williams said.

Williams said she and the school board understand that many students are struggling with hybrid and online instruction, but she said educators need to balance mental health and physical health of students and the community. She said the Legislature can help students by funding Reynolds’ children’s mental-health initiatives, which the governor has been requesting since spring of 2019.

“Nobody thinks that this is a great way to educate kids, and we’re certainly not looking at next year and saying ‘Gosh, hybrid learning has been such a huge success,’” Williams said. “…We have to recognize the reality that it’s not safe to bring kids back.”

State Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, the vice chair of the House Education Committee, said he would take concerns about vaccines into consideration, but he would prefer to offer broad state guidelines and leave the option to localities on how to best implement safety measures.

He said there hasn’t been a specific decision about how to require an option for in-person learning, but that lawmakers are in early talks and “everything is on the table.”

“What we want to look at is opportunities to try and ensure that parents’ voices are being heard,” Wheeler said. “Talks are still very early, but I think the general idea is there, that we want to try and empower parents as much as possible in this process.”

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said he’d prefer to continue allowing schools to make decisions about instruction delivery. One thing missing from the state’s data is a way to track absenteeism among school staff. He said that would be vital in deciding whether schools have the personnel to return to in-person instruction.

“Of course we want kids back in school, of course parents want their kids back in school, but you have to have teachers and staff to support schools, and that’s not anywhere in this equation,” he said.