Local state lawmakers and school officials on Wednesday offered mixed reactions to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal that would require districts to allow students to attend classes full time during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The proposal was among several that Reynolds put forth in her Condition of the State address on Tuesday night. Several aspects of her vision for the 2021 legislative session aim to make changes to public education.
Since the onset of the pandemic, school districts across the state and nation have turned to multiple models to continue educating students, including virtual, remote learning; in-person education with social distancing; and hybrid offerings.
In her address, Reynolds recalled conversations with parents frustrated that other parents have the option to send their children to school 100% virtually, while those who want their children to attend school 100% in-person do not have that choice in some districts.
“I agree, so tonight I am asking the Legislature to immediately send a bill to my desk that gives parents the choice to send their child back to school full time,” said the Republican governor. “We can’t wait any longer. Our kids can’t wait any longer.”
Dubuque Community Schools has used a hybrid model so far this school year, with students alternating in-person and remote attendance days to allow for the distancing of students and staff.
Superintendent Stan Rheingans said officials had anticipated a potential state directive on school reopening and have planned for what full-time, in-person instruction would look like.
“We would not be able to ensure students have that 6 feet of social distancing if we increase our capacity,” he said. “So we’ll have to be very clear about that with parents. And staffing will be an issue for us if we have staff infected.”
Western Dubuque Community School District officials have been holding in-person classes four days each week, with Fridays devoted to teachers helping the 170 students whose parents opted for remote learning.
Superintendent Rick Colpitts said WD’s third trimester begins March 15, so he and his school board already had been discussing moving back to five-day weeks then.
“That could change our timeline, if (Reynolds) were able to get the Legislature to move quickly and we had to offer in-person every day,” he said.
Bellevue Community School District Superintendent Tom Meyer said his schools have offered daily in-person learning since August. But he said districts ought to be able to make their own decisions.
“Every district has their own challenges when it comes to having a safe environment,” he said. “They’re doing what they can do based on the facilities they have, on their students, on their staff.”
Area lawmakers offered a range of reactions to Reynolds’ proposal.
“It’s no secret that the Republican caucus is eager to delve into education this session,” said Iowa Sen. Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville. “… I’m anxious to get that bill down to her, too. I’ve heard from a lot of parents who want a greater say. I think it’s a good step forward.”
Iowa Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, was critical of the proposal.
“We all want kids back in school,” she said. “Rather than provide the leadership to partner with local school leaders and teachers to help students recover, we heard a top-down, broad, statewide mandate that ignores public health advice and takes away local communities’ ability to decide for themselves how best to reopen their schools.”
Iowa Rep. Shannon Lundgren, R-Peosta, said she agreed with Reynolds’s core concept but that the state cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach.
“How it will look, I’ll have to see in writing and consult with our districts in Dubuque County to ensure that whatever we do from the state level works for them,” she said.
Iowa Rep. Lee Hein, R-Monticello, said schools still can have local control, just with full-time, face-to-face instruction in their offerings.
“I’m not against school districts maintaining hybrid or online, but we need to give the parents the decision over what’s best for their child,” he said.
Iowa Rep. Lindsay James, D-Dubuque, though, said parents having to choose all-virtual or all in-person is not a “true choice.”
“They will have to choose between sending their kids 100% in-person and risking they contract the virus and maybe spread it, or all 100% remote and suffering those consequences,” she said. “There are other options.”
Iowa Rep. Steve Bradley, R-Cascade, said Reynolds was “right on, on the education part.”
Reynolds’ education proposals extend beyond requiring districts to offer full-time, in-person learning. During her address, she proposed a suite of “parental choice” measures, including requiring all school districts to allow open enrollment, providing flexibility for communities to create more public charter schools and creating “education savings accounts” to allow families greater school choice.
Lundgren said parents are one group who often are left out of the room when conversations are made around education, so she lauded what she called “some creative ideas” in Reynolds’s address.
Iowa Sen. Mike Klimesh, R-Spillville, and Iowa Reps. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque, and Anne Osmundson, R-Volga, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.