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With school closures across Iowa now extended to the end of the month, local district leaders must decide what educational opportunities their students will receive.

State officials this week laid out for public and private schools three options to provide instruction from April 13 to April 30 after Gov. Kim Reynolds extended school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Districts can require that their students participate in online educational services; can provide online optional enrichment opportunities; or can offer no continuous learning. They must decide on a course of action by Friday, April 10.

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Local districts and nonpublic schools now are charting a course for what the coming month will look like, weighing in the process how they can most effectively serve students with a variety of needs.

“Regardless, we’re going to find a way to serve our students,” said Stan Rheingans, superintendent of Dubuque Community Schools.

State guidance

This week, officials from the Iowa Department of Education detailed procedures that districts will need to follow to provide “continuous learning” so students can carry on with learning while schools are closed.

Schools can choose from two kinds of continuous learning, according to education department guidance.

They can offer students voluntary enrichment opportunities, in which students choose whether to participate and no grades or credit are given. Alternatively, they can offer required educational services, in which students must participate and attendance is taken and grades are given.

Schools also can choose not to offer continuous learning. However, if districts choose that option, they will need to make up educational hours that they are missing while classes are called off from April 13 to April 30.

Schools are required to let state officials know which option they select by April 10. Public schools that choose to require students to attend classes must receive approval from the state via an expedited application process. Private schools do not need to apply but must let the state know what they choose to do.

Weighing options

On Friday, some area school leaders already had decided which route they will take, while others continued to weigh their options.

Dubuque Community Schools officials previously were planning to start rolling out “pretty significant voluntary options” to students starting on Wednesday, April 8, before state officials announced their plans, Rheingans said.

Those will include teacher-produced videos and lessons focused on key areas.

However, district leaders still are weighing whether they will require students to participate, Rheingans said.

“We’ve had a lot of questions,” Rheingans said. “We’re still waiting on the guidance (from the state). It seems pretty simplistic when you hear about it in a press conference, but then you get into the nuts and bolts of providing those experiences for all students.”

Among factors that officials must consider is how the district would serve students who receive special-education services or who are English-language learners if they are required to attend class, Rheingans said.

In the Bellevue Community School District, educators have provided students with learning opportunities since campuses were closed last month, Superintendent Tom Meyer said.

His district has not decided yet whether to require students to participate. However, Meyer said he is leaning toward keeping enrichment opportunities voluntary, but giving students some expectations to participate.

“I think it comes down to, and I authentically mean this, we are not an online school,” Meyer said. “To say that we’re going to have an effective virtual learning school, online learning school, is a difficult thing to guarantee.”

Decisions made

In the Western Dubuque Community School District, leaders already have opted to provide students with voluntary enrichment while their schools are closed, Superintendent Rick Colpitts said.

He said that given the physical size of the district and the number of communities it serves, making sure every student has internet access would be difficult, if not impossible.

“The required route, although it sounds like a great idea, would be really difficult for not just our district, but most districts to do,” he said.

Officials at Holy Family Catholic Schools have offered students optional learning but plan to switch to a required learning plan on April 13, Chief Administrator Phillip Bormann said.

“If we ended up not going back (to school) at all, that would be 28% of the year that kids would not have,” Bormann said. “And so to prevent that and to continue to serve our kids well, both spiritually and academically, we want to make sure we’re offering a virtual learning experience.”