A District Keeps Classrooms Closed, Defying a Governor’s Order


No matter how much tension has surrounded the reopening of schools during the coronavirus pandemic, most state and local officials have found a way to arrive at some sort of plan by the first day of classes.

But not in Des Moines, where school began this week with local officials openly defying Iowa’s governor and a judge’s order by teaching remotely. The decision puts the district’s funding and administrators’ jobs at risk, and leaves students locked out of athletics and their parents uncertain whether online classes will even count.

The conflict is perhaps the nation’s starkest example of the tension between Republican state officials, who have followed the lead of President Trump in pushing schools to reopen classrooms, and local administrators, often in Democratic-leaning cities, who fear that in-person instruction will put students’ and teachers’ health in danger.

“It kind of feels like science versus politics,” the Des Moines schools superintendent, Thomas Ahart, said. “The last thing I want to do is make this political. What I desperately want to do is to be able to honestly tell my staff and my students and their families that I’m doing everything in my power to keep them safe.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds, for her part, argued on Thursday that by pushing schools to open classrooms, she was prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable students. “We just simply cannot afford to let our students be left behind even in these most challenging times,” Ms. Reynolds, a Republican, said at a news conference.

The dispute is playing out as Iowa remains hard hit by the pandemic. Over the past week, the state has had the nation’s third-highest number of new coronavirus cases per capita, according to New York Times tracking data.

“I certainly would not feel comfortable sending my kids to school at that level,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, who has advocated opening schools in places like the Northeast that have significantly fewer new cases per capita.

Iowa officials have said that 15 percent of a county’s coronavirus tests must be positive over a two-week period before its schools can close their doors — a threshold that is at least triple what many public health experts have recommended, and one that Dr. Jha called “outlandishly high.”

Districts in counties that remain below the 15 percent test positivity threshold must offer at least 50 percent of their classes in person, the governor ordered in July. Polk County, which includes Des Moines, had an average positivity rate of about 8 percent over the past two weeks.

The clash between local and state officials escalated on Tuesday, the first day of school in Des Moines, when a state judge refused the district’s request to block the state order while the two sides fight a legal battle, leaving the district in defiance of both the governor and the courts as it has continued to teach online this week.

Credit…Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Early this summer, state officials and the district seemed to be on the same page. The state had approved a reopening plan for Des Moines, the superintendent said, under which its 32,000 students could choose between learning remotely or returning to school one or two days a week.

But things changed after Mr. Trump began a concerted push for in-person learning, tweeting on July 6, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!”

Some states led by Republican governors began to put pressure on districts to meet Mr. Trump’s demands. The same day as the president’s tweet, the Florida state education commissioner issued an order requiring all schools to open classrooms five days a week, with limited exceptions, prompting lawsuits from teachers’ associations. The Arkansas state education commissioner soon followed with a similar order.

In Iowa, Ms. Reynolds issued a proclamation on July 17 requiring schools to offer primarily in-person instruction.

At the same time, new daily cases in Des Moines were rising. The district decided it was no longer safe to offer any in-person instruction, and administrators applied to the state for a waiver to offer only virtual classes.

The request was denied because the county’s test positivity rate was below the state’s threshold, which also requires that at least 10 percent of a district’s students must be absent because of illness unless the positivity rate goes above 20 percent.

Iowa City, which is also fighting the governor’s order in court, has been granted a waiver to teach fully remotely for now because the case positivity rate there is currently 22 percent.

The governor has said that if a district offers only virtual classes without approval, those days will not count toward the required 180 days of instruction that a district must provide each year. She has also said that administrators who defy the state could face discipline from their licensing body, and that districts offering only virtual instruction must suspend sports teams and other extracurricular activities.

Ms. Reynolds declined to comment, but her spokesman, Pat Garrett, said the governor “believes getting Iowa’s students and teachers back to school safely is an important part of our state’s Covid-19 recovery.”

The district, whose school board is nonpartisan but is in a city that leans Democratic, sued the governor in August. On Tuesday, Judge Jeffrey Farrell of Polk County District Court denied the school district a temporary injunction while the case worked its way through the courts, saying state officials had “made a judgment call that the benefits of sending kids back to school outweigh the increased risks of illness and death.”

He added, “Whether right or wrong, that is their decision to make.”

District officials continued to hold online classes on Wednesday and Thursday despite the judge’s decision. The school board was set to meet publicly on Thursday evening to discuss options, after a closed-door meeting with its lawyers on Wednesday.

“This has always been about what was ultimately the best, safest way to educate our kids,” Rob X. Barron, a school board member, said. “I don’t know why they will not work with us on this,” he said of state officials.

The death of a longtime special education teacher, who fell ill after an out-of-state trip and died of coronavirus complications last week, before school started, further ratcheted up concerns among the district’s 5,000 employees. About 1,500 employees have pre-existing medical conditions, according to a survey the district conducted this summer, and 34 percent are over the age of 50.

Mr. Ahart, the superintendent, said six bus drivers had quit this week over concerns about contracting the virus. And Joshua Brown, president of the local teachers’ union, said several teachers had inquired about how to resign if the district agrees to comply with the governor’s order.

“It’s scary as hell,” said Dave O’Connor, 58, a middle school social studies teacher who has high blood pressure and other health issues. He added, “I always knew that my government could march me off to war, but I didn’t know that they could march me into a situation that’s this unsafe.”

Many of the district’s school buildings are aging — the average is about 65 years old, officials said — with poor ventilation and crowded classrooms. High school classes often have about 40 students, Mr. Ahart said, and even at half capacity, students could not remain six feet apart. “It cannot be done.”

Dr. Jha at Brown suggested that the state should work with county health officials to try to lower the coronavirus caseload in the community, making it safer to open schools, rather than “trying to essentially push the county to do something that most public health experts would agree is not wise.”

Parents and students are divided over the district’s resistance. Erin Willey, 48, whose younger daughter is a junior in high school, said she thought the district was being overly combative, rather than trying to work with the state.

She said she agreed that high schools were crowded, but said she thought the district could find other buildings — either vacant ones it already owned, or ones it could rent — to spread the students out.

She said she did not see the coronavirus as so different from other diseases that schools deal with regularly. “The fact of life is that people get sick,” Ms. Willey said.

But Joe Hogg, 37, who has four children in the Des Moines schools, said he would keep them learning at home rather than send them to school under current conditions. “There is no way that they can positively say your kid will be safe at school,” he said.

Mr. Hogg’s 16-year-old son, Noah, agreed with the district’s position, even if it means he misses out on time with his friends and teachers. “If it means people are going to be safer,” he said, “of course I’d stay home.”


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