Des Moines says no to governor's demand for classroom return

A sign outside of Greenwood Elementary School promotes mask-wearing on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. A dispute between Iowa's governor and the state's largest school district could mean summer school for students and crippling bills for the school system. Des Moines school officials have repeatedly refused to abide by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds' order that districts hold at least half their classes in-person, saying it's not safe. (AP Photo/Scott McFetridge) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

DES MOINES, Iowa – Students in Iowa’s largest school system are facing the possibility that this most unusual school year could stretch into next summer, and the district could be hit with crippling bills because of a dispute with the governor over the safety of returning to classrooms during the coronavirus pandemic.

Des Moines school officials have repeatedly refused to abide by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ order requiring the state’s 327 school districts to hold at least half their classes in-person rather than online. For Des Moines, it’s a question of trying to keep its more than 33,000 students and 5,000 staffers from contracting the disease. But after the school board last week again voted to violate Reynolds’ order, the governor called the action “unacceptable” and began the process for punishing the district.

Reynolds has dismissed Des Moines' officials' concerns, noting that nearly all other Iowa districts have reopened their classrooms despite some virus outbreaks and the occasional need to quarantine students, saying, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

School districts across the country have struggled with the decision of whether to return to classrooms despite the risk of coronavirus infections or shift to online learning, and the choice is especially stark for Iowa's capital city. Des Moines has had one of the nation's highest rates of people testing positive for COVID-19, and school board members ask how it would be possible to enforce social distancing rules in their crowded classrooms and packed school buses.

The school board delayed the start of school by a week as the district sought a court injunction to block the governor's order, arguing that she had overstepped her authority. A judge initially sided with the governor, but the district proceeded with its plan to distribute thousands of laptops to students and launched a completely online course offering on Sept. 8.

District officials have said they’re deeply troubled to be out of compliance with state standards, but they believe the governor has put them in a no-win situation by ordering students to spend at least half their time in classroom. Reynolds' order does allow waivers allowing online-only instruction, but only for districts where more than 15% of people test positive for the virus, which is triple the 5% positivity rate that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health experts say would be appropriate for resuming in-person classes.

The district notes that 31% of its staff members have health concerns that put them at higher risk from COVID-19 and 10% are older than 60. If forced to resume classes, officials contend that many teachers and bus drivers would quit rather than risk being infected by the virus.

The positivity rate in Polk County, where most of Des Moines is located, reached 12% earlier in September but recently dropped to about 7%.