Tamarack Discovery School in Downtown District opens doors, requires masks

The Tamarack Discovery School, which opened Monday, can require all students to wear masks because of its accreditation status, despite recent legislation by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.


Grace Smith

The Tamarak Discovery School is pictured on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 in downtown Iowa City. The private school will host kindergarten through sixth grade and open this week. (Grace Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Sabine Martin, News Editor

Both founders of the Tamarack Discovery School and former public school educators will require masks and follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 recommendations for students this fall.  

The K-6 school opened its doors in downtown Iowa City on Monday. While running on the same schedule as the Iowa City Community School District, the school will not seek district accreditation, according to Tamarack Executive Director Katie Christiansen.

Christiansen, who has served in public education for 19 years, said the school’s students register under one of Iowa’s education options for home schooling — competent private instruction.

“Because we are not accredited, we are not a public school, then we are considered outside those boundaries,” Christiansen said. “I’ve always wanted to impact what our public schools look like, and I know that our teachers are doing an amazing job, but there’s just lots of limitations on what they can do.”

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill banning mask mandates in K-12 schools in May, despite CDC recommendations, as previously reported by The Daily Iowan.

Christiansen said the school launched last June in Coralville in a smaller location. She said the school did not have any student cases of COVID-19 last year. 

The building in the downtown district was formerly the National Co+op Grocers on South Linn Street. Christiansen said the building’s three classrooms will have 12-16 students per room to allow for social distancing. 

“We’re also keeping our class sizes small because we really believe that educators need to have really strong relationships with their students and get to know them really well in order to provide really individualized instruction,” she said. 

RELATED: Gov. Kim Reynolds signs bill banning school mask mandates

Intermediate Classroom Teacher Becky Jensen said many students had anxiety about COVID-19 over the course of the last school year. 

“In April last year, I taught the older kids, and they all brought a little stuffed animal from home, which was so sweet,” she said. “And that was totally understandable, but we talked about it and we were open about it.”

A classroom inside Tamarak Discovery School is pictured on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 in downtown Iowa City. This private school will host kindergarten through sixth grade and open this week. (Grace Smith)

The school plans to use county and University of Iowa professionals to teach lessons about their professions, and emphasize indoor-outdoor learning experiences, Christiansen said.  

“COVID will really restrict our movements this year, but we definitely know that there are also educators at the university level that can spark a passion in kids at a young age,” she said. “From the beginning, it’s kind of been our ideal hope that we would have resources at our fingertips.” 

Tamarack Environmental Educator Madeleine Moloney said she hopes to plan lessons and activities with the UI sustainability office and environmental program. 

“We’re hoping to contact different program directors within and just set something up with their students to come and teach,” Moloney said. 

Students received instruction from the UI astronomy department last year, Tamarack Program Director Liz Ernst said. 

“They had a couple of student workers come and just kind of show us around,” Ernst said. “We got to go into Van Allen and they showed us the telescopes.”

Christiansen said, right now, schools like the Tamarack Discovery School are dabbling with what alternative education looks like. 

“We took the things that were already in our community — the things that we valued,” she said. “One of those things being our kids spending lots of time connecting with nature for ourselves, our mental health, and our physical health.”