A Showdown Over Returning to the Classroom

In this July 29, 2020 file photo, custodian Doug Blackmer wipes down a desk in a classroom at the Jesse Franklin Taylor Education Center in Des Moines, Iowa.

In this July 29, 2020 file photo, custodian Doug Blackmer wipes down a desk in a classroom at the Jesse Franklin Taylor Education Center in Des Moines, Iowa. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall


Connecting state and local government leaders

An Iowa school district and teachers union have sued the governor over her mandate requiring schools to reopen for in-person instruction.

Iowa educators are embroiled in a battle with Gov. Kim Reynolds over who has the authority to set the terms of students’ and teachers’ return to the classroom.

The Iowa City Community School District had planned to start the school year with all online classes. But citing a law passed this year by the state legislature, the Republican governor issued a mandate that all schools provide at least 50% in-person instruction this year.

The school district, backed by the Iowa State Education Association, sued and will argue for an injunction to block enforcement of the governor’s order on Sept. 3.

"Ultimate authority to determine the content and to effectuate the content of the plan to return to school lies with the individual school boards across the state of Iowa," said ISEA General Council Jay Hammond during a press conference this week.

Reynolds’ daughter is a teacher who would be among those returning to the classroom this fall, and eight of her grandchildren would return to school. She has said that schools need to be open for the benefit of both students and their parents.

“Education is fundamental to the well-being of our children, and our teachers are essential to ensuring that our schoolkids return to learn rather than mark time and lose ground,” she told the Associated Press.  “We can do this safely.”

A similar debate is also playing out in Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an emergency order mandating schools reopen at least five days a week beginning in August. DeSantis has touted the need to get students back in classrooms, calling the risk to students “low” and the cost of keeping schools closed “enormous."

The largest teachers' union in the state, the Florida Education Association, filed a lawsuit challenging that order. A ruling in that case is expected next week.

Districts across the country have wrestled this summer with the question of whether or not to reopen schools. Functioning schools are vital for the economy and will enable parents to get back to work. But as the number of coronavirus cases has grown this summer, safety continues to be a concern. Already some universities have reversed their plans to hold in-person classes this fall after infection clusters developed, at times sending students home just days after welcoming them back to campus.

But while the governors of Iowa and Florida are pushing school districts to reopen, other states have offered schools more flexibility. While the Illinois State Board of Education has strongly encouraged school districts to provide as much in-person education as possible, it is allowing local districts to decide whether to go online or in-person.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, announced last week that schools can opt for remote learning. But to do so, schools must provide a rationale for the decision and assure the state they have a plan in place to reopen in-person.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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