Masks are everyday attire for students and employees in the Maquoketa Community School District. COVID-19 cases among staff forced students at the high school and Cardinal to switch to online-only learning last week.

Since the summer, Northeast Community School District teachers have prepared for the possibility of students learning from home. 

That prospect became a reality Friday as Northeast’s elementary school began two weeks of online learning after the Iowa Department of Education approved the district’s request. The waiver allows for exclusive remote learning through Nov. 24.

Superintendent Neil Gray requested the waiver early last week when the Northeast district had more than 200 of its 842 students quarantining. An estimated 23.5% of the district-wide student body was recorded as absent Nov. 9 and staffing numbers had dipped to near-dire levels as teachers were either COVID positive or under quarantine. More than 15 teachers were absent, Gray said. 

Gray had no doubts the district’s waiver would be accepted — it eclipsed the state’s minimum requirements for online learning by a wide margin. Thursday’s in-person classes were used partially for instruction, but also to prepare students for class on a screen.  

School superintendents around eastern Iowa are grappling with staffing shortages as the number of COVID-19 cases surge in Clinton and Jackson counties. While Northeast is the first in the area to request a waiver to go to two weeks of online learning, other districts are taking more limited measures. 

“Our challenge right now is finding enough substitutes for teachers and para educators,” Maquoketa Community School District Superintendent Chris Hoover said in early November. That situation became dire when Hoover announced that all Maquoketa high school and preschool students would move to three days of remote learning last week due to extreme staff shortages. In addition, the entire school district will move to remote learning Nov. 23 and 24 and Dec. 1. With the already planned Thanksgiving break, students will not physically be in school for seven days surrounding the holiday. 

Hoover said he hoped the steps would keep staff and students safer, offer a solution to staffing shortages, and also “provide additional time to recognize symptoms, reduce exposure and allow beginning of quarantine to take place if students were exposed to COVID.” It also gives staff the opportunity to focus on online learning only and implement expectations that would continue if extended online learning was needed in the future. 

While superintendents for the Bellevue and Andrew school districts said they were committed to keeping kids in school in-person, they expressed concern about increased staff absences impacting their ability to do so.  They both noted that the situation is fluid.

Bellevue Community School District Superintendent Tom Meyer told others on a call with the Jackson County Covid-19 committee that Thursday had been “a rough day here. We are going to try to keep going. It’s challenging. It’s really challenging.”

As of the end of last week, the school district had 58 elementary and 40 middle/school high school students quarantined. The district has about 800 students. 

He said he feels it’s what’s going on outside of school that is helping to spread the virus, a sentiment that health officials echoed regarding hospitals and other health facilities. Meyer said he would welcome messaging from health and other government officials encouraging mask wearing in particular. 

“We need everyone to be involved and keep saying it,” Meyer said. “I feel like it falls on deaf ears. It gets frustrating to go into local stores and people don’t have a mask on. It has to be led by people out in the community. That’s as simple as it gets.” 

As far as staffing, Bellevue is facing the same challenges as neighboring districts, but has been able to provide coverage for absent staff through substitutes, extra personnel hired at the start of the school year and creative staffing arrangements by principals.

Andrew Superintendent Chris Fee said in a letter to parents that the school district has no intent of moving to virtual learning at this time. Since the start of the school year, Andrew has had fewer than five confirmed COVID cases in its school building. He did acknowledge concern about the skyrocketing positivity rates in the community.

The most recent attendance report from Central DeWitt Community School Superintendent Dan Peterson showed a total of 165 students quarantined at the end of last week and 15 who had tested positive in isolation for a total of 13.38% of students out. Among staff, 13 were in quarantine and 12 were in isolation for testing positive for a total of 9% of staff out. He also stressed the importance of people in the community doing their part by following hygiene protocols to keeping students and staff safe, as well as in school.  

School districts may request to go to 100% online learning for two weeks if their counties have a 15% positive COVID-19 rate in a two-week period and 10% of students in a particular building are absent. Districts in counties with 20% and above may also request temporarily closing buildings or the whole district.

The rolling 14-day positivity rate was 29% in Clinton County and 32.2% in Jackson County on Sunday.

The decision to request the waiver at the Northeast elementary school came as a result of particularly high numbers, Gray said, with some 29% of teachers, 26% of associates and 30% of students out for quarantine or isolation as of Wednesday. 

Moving to online instruction was not done lightly, he said.

“We realize that doing so will create a new set of problems and many inconveniences for students and families. As long as COVID-19 remains a viable threat to the health and safety of our learning environment, we are obligated to follow the Iowa Department of Public Health and Department of Education guidelines and protocols,” he said.