As COVID-19 cases in Johnson County soar, Iowa City school board votes to start the year online-only
Iowa City Schools' academic year will begin Sept. 8 with two weeks of fully online instruction. On Saturday, the Iowa City Community School District's Board of Directors voted 6-0 to accept a waiver from the state to forgo a part in-person, part-online model after the number of positive cases COVID-19 soared this week in Johnson County.
As the meeting began Saturday morning, student-athletes and parents gathered at the ESC parking lot to show their support for keeping athletics available to students as the school considers the move online. A group in the parking lot called into the meeting to weigh in:
"We've done everything you've asked. There are so many opportunities that could be taken away because of this," said one football player.
A volleyball co-captain said while she was fine with no spectators for games, losing them completely would be a blow to her senior year.
The Iowa Department of Education announced Aug. 14 that, should a school district or nonpublic school move to 100% online or remote learning, all “in-person activities and practices would need to be suspended during the period of 100% remote learning.”
While the school board was unanimous in reaffirming their July vote to move instruction fully online, the reality they were taking extracurriculars away was not lost on them.
Board member Lisa Williams said the teams had proven it was possible to do extracurricular activities safely. However, the state has taken away the district's ability to make that call if the district moves fully online. She urged parents and students to join them in convincing Gov. Kim Reynolds that the district should be able to make these decisions locally.
On Aug. 18, Iowa City Schools joined a lawsuit with the Iowa State Education Association challenging Reynolds' interpretation of a law she says requires schools to hold at least 50% of instruction in-person.
But given COVID-19 positive rates, Williams said she couldn't accept the "give students the choice" argument when it denied teachers and staff the same choice.
"If students are the heart of our schools, then teachers, staff and building professionals are its soul," Williams said. "The board has to make the right decisions for everyone — not just students."
Since the University of Iowa students returned to campus, Johnson County's positive rates have been on the rise. On Friday, the University reported 500 student cases of COVID-19. As of Saturday, Johnson County had the third-highest 14-day average of percentage of positive cases in the state, at 21.1%, according to the Iowa Dept. of Health's coronavirus portal.
Given this marked rise, the board said they did not feel comfortable allowing for an environment where students could congregate and potentially contribute to community spread. Each commented on the torrent of "heartbreaking" correspondence from parents and students about the loss of extracurriculars and in-person instruction.
"This sucks. It is hard," Malone said. "But I'm not going to pretend that I'm going to vote differently."
"If we have created an environment where large groups of people are gathering, we will contribute to the problem," board member Shawn Eyestone said.
"This is like watching the trainwreck in slow motion. We have to do everything we can to prevent community spread," board member JP Claussen added.
Board member Charlie Eastham said the work ahead will require figuring out how to support students and families who have relied on the schools to provide certain services. For example, an application for participation in the school lunch program will go out Monday, continuing access to the school's widely-felt nutrition services. But more was needed.
Eastham said he wanted to drill into how the district was approaching special education while online, as well as how they could provide some system of vouchers or supplementary income for working families in need of childcare slots due to the board's decision.
The School Board will meet again at 5 p.m. Tuesday. The meeting will be held over Zoom due to the pandemic. For more information, go here.
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