Iowa schools brace for extended shutdown as COVID-19 infections near 500
Deputy Director of the Iowa Department of Public Health Sarah Reisetter says current estimates for the peak of COVID-19 cases is still two to three weeks away. Des Moines Register
Des Moines Public Schools Superintendent Tom Ahart said it is unlikely that students will return to classrooms April 13, four weeks after the governor recommended schools close for a month to limit the spread of novel coronavirus.
Iowa school district officials told the Register they are working on contingency plans in the event the shutdown is extended — potentially through the end of the school year.
As of Tuesday, nearly 500 people in Iowa had tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, and state health officials are projecting the first peak of coronavirus infections could be two or three weeks away.
“We’re hoping for the best, but preparing for what might be the most difficult reality,” Waukee Superintendent Brad Buck said.
Des Moines Public Schools told parents Monday that it anticipates school closures will continue past April 13.
"While no final decision has been made, we want to let you know that a longer closure is possible and hope you will consider how this may impact you and your family," it said in a message to families.
Ahart said the district is making "contingency plans based on another two-week extension … or even not returning this year,” but it needs guidance from the state before moving forward.
"If we're out for two or three weeks that's one thing, but if we're out for additional time that has a broader impact," he said. "What I think a lot of us, or at least Des Moines, is struggling with is being able to have plans in place in a timely fashion so we can adequately serve our students."
► Coronavirus in Iowa: See where the state's confirmed COVID-19 cases are located
Gov. Kim Reynolds said Monday the state is working with federal officials and examining local data as it considers additional steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus. There were 497 positive COVID-19 tests in the state as of Tuesday, and seven deaths reported by the Iowa Department of Public Health.
The state will issue updated guidance later this week, Reynolds said. However, it's unclear whether school closures will be part of those recommendations.
Last week, the Iowa Department of Education reversed its earlier stance, saying schools with state approval can now require students to participate in online education during the shutdown. It has formed a continuing learning task force that is working on measures to expedite the approval for new online programs.
That could give schools the go-ahead to set up online programs in the event the closure is extended.
On Monday, Des Moines Public Schools launched a survey to determine whether high school seniors have access to computers and the internet in the event classes must be completed online. Waukee has begun collecting data needs districtwide in anticipation on launching online classes.
All of Iowa’s K-12 schools voluntarily closed after Reynolds on March 15 recommended a four-week shutdown to stem the spread of COVID-19. Iowa is one of three states without a statewide order closing schools. Six states — Alabama, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Virginia and Vermont — have closed schools through the end of the school year.
President Donald Trump announced on Sunday that the White House would be extending its social distancing guidelines through April 30 — a month longer than an initial 15-day timeline when they were implemented on March 16.
The guidelines call on Americans to avoid social gatherings involving groups of 10 or more, to stay away from public spaces like restaurants and bars, to avoid discretionary travel and to practice increased hygiene.
Trump said Sunday that the White House task force would be sharing further data and finalized plans on Tuesday.
Charles Flesher covers K-12 education for the Register. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 515-284-8481. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesFlesher.