DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Thursday insisted that the state controls how public schools will resume classes next month, saying districts can provide online learning only if coronavirus cases are surging in their communities.
The teachers union immediately pushed back against her demand that schools seek the state's permission to send children home, saying the lives of children and teachers are at stake and that science not politics should guide decisions.
On July 17, Reynolds said the state will require at least half of classes to be held in person and on Thursday she updated that guidance to say the state will decide when K-12 schools can send students home based on community virus spread and student illnesses.
Reynolds' new requirements came on a day when the state reported 15 more deaths and 582 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. The rate of hospitalizations and patients in intensive care also are increasing.
“COVID-19 poses low risk to school-age children based on low transmission in the community. Children are not driving the pandemic and transmission from students to students and teachers have been low," Reynolds said at a news conference in the state Capitol. “With proper tools and resources, we can reopen safely protecting students, teachers, staff and families.”
Reynolds' rules for school makes exceptions for parents who can choose to keep a child at home for remote learning, and districts must make accommodations for any student to learn remotely if they, a caregiver, or a person they live with has a health condition that would increase their risk of COVID-19.
Although some school districts previously said they would seek waivers to the state Education Department's mandates, guidelines outlined by Reynolds would allow exceptions only if counties have coronavirus positivity rates of 15% to 20% over a two week period, and at least 10% of students absent. If granted, such waivers for remote-only learning would expire after 14 days.
If community transmission is worse than a 20% positivity rate over a two-week period, districts also could seek to send students home for virtual learning.
Reynolds, a Republican, is a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, who has insisted that students return to classes even as case numbers soar nationwide. She noted that the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that counties with less than a 10% positivity rate should reopen and 93 of Iowa's 100 counties meet that threshold.
The districts in the seven counties with higher rates can apply beginning next week to start the year with at least partial at-home learning for two weeks.
On Wednesday, members of the state teachers union called on Reynolds to rescind her proclamation and establish a rule that “places the health and safety of our students, educators school employees and communities ahead of politics."
Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek said more than 36,000 people have signed a petition that will be mailed to Reynolds asking for local decision control.
“Most importantly we are not just talking about numbers as we look at this decision. We are talking about children’s lives and the lives of the educators, school employees and the families who are affected,” he said.
Reynolds continues to refuse to impose a mask mandate in Iowa, and the Department of Education has recommended against districts requiring them in schools. Local officials in some cities and counties have moved to enact their own despite Reynolds’ saying they cannot enforce it without her authority.
She said that some states that imposed mask requirements after virus surges have not seen cases fall.
“It’s just there’s not a silver bullet. There’s not a single answer,” she said.