No one has a harder job right now than those tasked with the almost impossible challenge of keeping public schools running while trying to prevent them from becoming epicenters of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Balancing the educational needs of students against public health concerns during a pandemic is the unenviable position school superintendents, principals and teachers find themselves in these days.
And as if that’s not enough, the administration of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is making things worse in multiple ways by issuing arbitrary rules – and at times providing unreliable information – to bully local school districts to bend to her political will. Reynolds’ administration is attempting to fool Iowans into believing it has been successful in its handling of the pandemic, while in reality, its true, politically motivated priority is to downplay the ongoing plague, which has now claimed the lives of 1,121 Iowans.
After just one week of in-person classes, the real challenges – and risks – are no longer theoretical. As reported on the front page of this newspaper, COVID-19 has already penetrated the Andrew and Maquoketa school systems, and there is little doubt administrators, principals, board members, teachers, staff and bus drivers in our part of Iowa will face more cases in coming days and weeks.
The benchmarks Reynolds’ administration has set for a school to qualify for a waiver, which would allow for classes to go online instead of in-person for two weeks, are absurdly tilted toward keeping children in class. To qualify for a waiver under the governor’s rules, 10% of a district’s student body would have to be home sick and their county would have to have a 15% positivity rate, which means an escalating healthcare disaster would likely already exist.
There is also much confusion – caused by state agencies contradicting each other – as to how schools should calculate rates of absenteeism.
All this leaves those responsible for running local school districts in an extremely tough position.
Jennifer Huling, principal at Northeast High School, called the way the state is calculating the absentee rate “mindboggling.”
Maquoketa Superintendent Chris Hoover said the state has overstepped its bounds.
“I feel (the state) has no discretion or right to tell us what we should do locally,” he said last week. “There has been a lot … that the state has pushed onto districts that we weren’t given a choice about.”
Neil Gray, superintendent of the Northeast school district, said teachers are stretched to the limit trying to deliver in-class and online lessons at the same time.
“What more can we expect our teachers to do?” Gray said. “We have to space the kids out and make (teachers’) jobs 10 times harder just to be a presence in the room. That’s happening all over the district.”
Those comments say a lot, and they undoubtedly speak for many other educators around the state. Those running school districts, as well as those toiling in the ranks, are, on a day-to-day basis, trying to figure out how to cope with an already incredibly tough set of circumstances made even more difficult by manipulative politics.
We hope they are able to work their way through the maze of decisions in front of them and find the best path forward.
We should all be rooting for them because the health of our local communities, and the health of our local economies, depends on their success.