Citing the high rate of coronavirus spread in Polk County, the Des Moines School Board Sunday evening voted to allow Superintendent Thomas Ahart to file a waiver asking permission from the state for all grades to transition to online learning starting Nov. 16.
Ahart said he would file the waiver immediately Sunday evening. The board will likely hear a response from the Department of Education within 24 to 48 hours.
The motion passed 6-1, with board member Teree Caldwell-Johnson voting against. If the waiver is granted, all grade levels would move to fully online learning for at least two weeks starting Nov. 16. That means high school students, who are slated to begin in-person hybrid learning Tuesday, could be in school for as short as four days before moving back online.
With his recommendation, Ahart said he was trying to “avoid having a disaster” as COVID-19 cases are expected to grow significantly through the week of Thanksgiving.
“What’s driving this recommendation isn’t a concern about a particular building, it’s looking at the steady increase over the last two weeks of positive cases in students and staff and a concurrent increase in students and staff being quarantined due to exposure and the rising conditions in the community,” he said.
Ahart said there is not a current end date for the move to fully online learning if the waiver is approved. The board will likely meet again if the waiver is granted to discuss applying for a second waiver if current COVID-19 conditions continue.
A second motion by board member Kalyn Cody to indefinitely delay the start of in-person instruction for high school students and transition pre-K through eighth grade to online learning starting Nov. 16 even if the waiver was not granted failed to pass by a vote of 4-3.
Members Dwana Bradley, Caldwell-Johnson, Kimberly Martorano, and Kelli Soyer voted against while Rob Barron, Kalyn Cody and Kyrstin Delagardelle voted for the motion.
Martorano brought up several concerns regarding virtual learning during the meeting. She said she was “taken aback” by data board members received Sunday that cited 55% of all high school students earning a D or an F in one or more classes, with 68% of male students and 69% of English-language learners in that category.
“Student achievement is going to be weighed heavily in my decision this evening,” she said.
Bradley also shared concerns about virtual learning, saying she had heard from a teacher that their online class sizes ranged from 47 to 50 students.
Preschools welcomed students on Oct. 12, followed by elementary schools on Oct. 19 and middle schools on Oct. 26.
The board voted in late September to adopt a hybrid model in an effort to be in compliance with state guidelines. For Des Moines’ model, the district divided students into two groups. The first group attends school on Monday and Tuesday and the second group attends school on Thursday and Friday. The two groups alternate every other Wednesday.
About 58% of students are in the district’s hybrid model while about 38% are in an online-only model.
State guidelines require schools to hold at least 50% of their classes in person unless the positivity rate in the district’s county exceeds 15% and the students’ absentee rate reaches 10%.
In early October, the board approved four metrics to consider when deciding whether to move classes online. Those metrics included:
- The number of new COVID-19 cases in Polk County reaches more than 100 per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period;
- The county’s positivity rate exceeds 10% over a 14-day period;
- The DMPS student absentee rate exceeds 10%;
- And the DMPS staff absentee rate exceeds 10% or 5-9.9% for a sustained period longer than one week.
Two of the district’s metrics have already been reached. As of Sunday afternoon, Polk County’s COVID-19 positivity rate over the past 14 days was 16%. And according to the Polk County Health Department, the county is averaging 372 total cases per 100,000 residents over the last seven days.
Also as of Sunday, 81 of the state’s 99 counties reported above a 15% 14-day positivity rate. Since Nov. 2, five Iowa schools have applied for and been granted waivers to temporarily move to 100% remote learning by the Iowa Department of Education.
As of Sunday, the district did not meet the state’s criteria of a 10% student absentee rate for the waiver. A
West Des Moines Community Schools will meet Monday as well to discuss the district’s current learning model. The district’s matrix suggests the board meet if Polk County reports above a 10% 14-day positivity rate. The board will consider the number of student absences, the positivity percentage in a classroom, school or district and the availability of staff in its decision.
Sarah LeBlanc covers the western suburbs for the Register. Reach her at 515-284-8161 or email@example.com.