Thousands of Iowa children return to the classroom this week amid a resurgence of the coronavirus and its delta variant that threatens to disrupt learning for the third year.
The Des Moines Register and its partner news organizations in Iowa City, Ames and Burlington are providing up-to-date school news here all week.
To get you started, check out these links before you drop your students off:
Back to school also means the return of high school football. Here’s what to know ahead of the 2021 season
Parents worry West Des Moines Schools’ COVID-19 mitigation efforts aren’t enough
Aug. 25: Jennifer Fenton lost her father to COVID-19 right around when school started last year. This year, she doesn’t want to lose her children.
At a school board meeting earlier this week, she tearfully described her concerns with sending her three children to Crossroads Park Elementary.
West Des Moines is offering an online learning option through the program Edgenuity for students under 12 who are not yet able to be vaccinated. But Fenton isn’t sure that option would be the best for her children — especially her sixth-grade son, who has autism and requires more personalized learning.
Of particular concern for Fenton is a lack of social distancing in the lunchroom.
“I’m really anxious about them all being in the same lunchroom and that there are no masks being worn, not even on the school buses,” she said Tuesday. “That that seems to vary between districts is confusing to me.”
Fenton said she would like more clarity from the district on how their COVID-19 mitigation strategy decisions were made.
Lisa Earles said she’s also concerned about students mingling in assemblies, art and music classes and physical education. She has a fourth and sixth-grader at Crossroads Park Elementary as well, and will have them in the online option this first semester.
“They seem to have an attitude that mask-wearing was the only effective strategy last year and if they can’t do that, they seem to have just thrown up their hands and said, ‘Why try?'” she said.
District spokesperson Laine Mendenhall-Buck said Tuesday that the district will regularly update its website to be “transparent to our greater community” regarding COVID-19 mitigation strategies and testing sites.
“We will continue to share with families, staff, and secondary students information that will help them understand our Return-to-Learn plan, safety strategies, and other resources to help them find local places to both test and receive a vaccine,” she said.
How has chief custodian Antonio Gomez’s job changed?
Aug. 24: Across the Des Moines Public School district there are 228 custodial staff to clean 60 school buildings. That number has not changed despite an increased awareness of sanitization amid COVID-19.
Last year, the focus was to clean everything as thoroughly as possible, said Bryan McEvoy, director of custodial services. Now, the staff is looking to balance the work of cleaning high-touch areas, including door handles and stair railings, with everyday tasks such as cleaning the floors.
The day before students returned to Hanawalt Elementary School chief custodian Antonio Gomez walked through the halls pushing a large cart across newly redone floors and past brightly decorated bulletin boards.
“It’s been a little bit of a change (but) we’ve been managing and adapting fairly good, I think,” he said.
Read more about how schools are preparing:As Des Moines Public Schools’ students return to class, focus turns to mitigation, easing fears, learning
Schools to get $8.6 million from state for mental health services
Aug. 24: Iowa is awarding $8.6 million in grants to school districts to provide additional mental health services, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Tuesday.
In a news release, Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Education said the money will go to 64 school districts around the state to aid with mental health and other wraparound services for students and families.
The money comes from a federal COVID-19 stimulus package, known as the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, which passed in December. The law gave governors around the country some discretionary funds to address critical needs resulting from the pandemic, the release said.
“We have to look at the whole health of every child and supporting the mental health of Iowa children and families is a top priority of mine,” Reynolds said in a statement. “This investment is not only about adapting to the challenges we face today, but it will help schools expand support systems to secure better outcomes moving forward.”
The state received 130 grant applications as part of the program. Applicants had to demonstrate unique student and family mental health needs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the release said. The state sent letters to successful applicants today and will award the funds after a 10-day period that allows unsuccessful applicants to appeal.
Axios: Ankeny school board were sent anonymous anti-mask flyers
Aug. 24: At least four the seven members of the Ankeny school board have received anonymous postcards calling it child abuse to mask children and calling COVID-19 vaccines a “clotshot,” according to Axios.
Board Vice President Amy Tagliareni told Axios her post card came from New Hampshire, was part of a larger movement fighting public health guidelines as “fear-mongering, lies and propaganda.”
The school district required students to wear masks when they returned to classrooms last year. They’ve since dropped the requirement in accordance with state law. The district is also facing a lawsuit from a parent alleging her daughter was singled out for punishment after the parent spoke against mask mandates at school board meetings.
The parent, Kimberly Reicks, attended Gov. Kim Reynolds midnight bill signing ceremony at the end of the session that banned the mask requirements.
Iowa Democrats urge Gov. Kim Reynolds to take federal COVID money to help schools, end ban on mask mandates
Aug. 24: All 18 of Iowa’s Democratic senators sent a letter to Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, Tuesday urging her to take $95 million from the federal government to help the fight against COVID-19. The remaining 32 state senators are all Republicans.
Reynolds said at the end of April she returned $95 million intended to help with COVID-19 because it wasn’t needed. Iowa Department of Public Health interim Director Kelly Garcia said after the announcement that no schools had asked for money for testing.
The senate Democrats say federal guidance now allows the money to be used for more than just testing and could be tapped for upgrading school’s air filtration systems and other mitigation efforts.
“We strongly urge you to reconsider your decision to reject reopening schools funding,” the letter, written by Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, and signed on to by the others, states. “Iowans want to fight COVID, not mitigation efforts or each other. It’s time to do the right thing to lead our state and country out of this pandemic.”
They cite the rising number of people with COVID-19 in Iowa’s hospitals and the rising number of positive tests as proof of the need for upgraded mitigation. The Democrats also urge Reynolds to restart daily reports of COVID-19 activity in the state and to end the law banning mask mandates in schools.
Iowa superintendents group report no other delays due to COVID
Aug. 24: Fifteen Iowa school district superintendents were asked during a School Administrators of Iowa Zoom call whether their districts were experiencing delays due to the pandemic.
“No one has heard about anyone else having to delay the start of school due to COVID, at least at this point,” said Roark Horn, the organization’s executive director.
On Monday, the AHSTW Community School District in Avoca announced it was delaying the start of its school year from Tuesday to Aug. 30 following an outbreak of the virus among staff members.
‘It doesn’t surprise us’: Iowa State Education Association president predicts more school closures could come as year begins
Aug. 23: The president of the Iowa State Education Association — the state’s largest teachers union — said he expects to see more school districts having to make the call on whether to close buildings as the school year begins amid rising coronavirus cases.
“It doesn’t surprise us,” Mike Beranek, the union’s president, told the Des Moines Register in an interview after the AHSTW Community School District announced Monday it will not start the year as planned due to an outbreak of COVID-19 among staff.
Beranek said the ISEA is anticipating more people will contract the virus as the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus continues to spread across the state and school begins.
He said school districts should be able to use “all the tools they have in their toolbox” to keep students and educators safe. But he said Iowa’s law banning mask requirements in schools has kept district officials from being able to use a full range of safety measures.
He also said he’s unsure that school boards and administrators will have all the information they will need to make decisions on whether to close a school. ISEA is encouraging all schools to contact trace cases, he said.
Des Moines school board unlikely to have special meeting on masks before classes
Aug. 23: It is unlikely the Des Moines School Board will hold a special session before school starts Wednesday to discuss masks in schools.
On Sunday, the Des Moines Education Association posted on Facebook that three of the seven board members would be in favor of calling a special meeting to discuss “the new federal guidance around masks and civil rights.” It takes four members to call a special meeting, however, and one of the advocates doubt they’ll get a fourth by then.
The Biden Administration announced last week the U.S. Department of Education could potentially take legal action against states with bans on mandatory masks in schools, including Iowa, using its oversite powers. Gov. Kim Reynolds has defended the law banning schools, counties and cities from enacting mandates.
School board Vice Chair Rob Barron and member Kalyn Cody support calling a special meeting to discuss masks.
On Monday afternoon, only three or the needed four members were onboard, Barron said. The board would need to post publicly its plan to host a meeting by Monday evening to hold a meeting Tuesday night.
The school board chair or the superintendent also has the authority to call a special meeting, he said.
Des Moines Superintendent Tom Ahart said previously he would enforce a mask mandate if the school board chose to put one in place.
Several board members opposed to calling a special meeting have pointed out the superintendent has a responsibility to uphold the law, Cody said. He has pointed out the superintendent is also required to provide a safe environment.
“So, which one matters here?” Cody asked.
Barron knows a vote on a districtwide mask mandate before school starts Wednesday is unlikely.
“I would vote for a mask mandate tomorrow. Even though the Legislature passed a bill seeking to ban them,” he said.
Barron supports a mask mandate, regardless of the state law, because, he said studies backing up masks as a way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and his own 8-year-old son is attending school in person.
“He’s not eligible to get a vaccine right now, and what kind of parent would I be if I wasn’t doing everything in my power to keep him safe? The same has to go for all his peers,” Barron said. “And so, I understand the governor doesn’t want me to require masks. I think she’s wrong and my conscience tells me I have to do something about it.”
Pottawattamie County school district delays start, cancels open house due to COVID outbreak among staff
Aug. 23: The AHSTW Community School District on the Nebraska border, which includes schools in Avoca, Hancock, Shelby, Tennant and Walnut will not start the year as planned Tuesday due to an outbreak of COVID-19 among school staff, superintendent Darin Jones said in a letter Monday.
The first day of school was delayed to Aug. 30. An open house scheduled to take place Monday was also canceled. Contact tracing showed the exposures mostly limited to staff and “students at the K-12 levels have not had the same level of exposure,” he wrote.
Contact tracers found about 50 of 120 people who attended a recent teacher in-service day were exposed to a person infected with COVID-19. Eight people have tested positive, with other tests pending, Jones said.
“This outbreak has led to multiple positives and many more exposures,” Jones wrote. “This leads to an increased concern level for me in knowing if we will be able to staff our building in the near future and also for the potential additional exposures to students who have yet to enter our building.”
The end of the school year and staff in-service days will be adjusted, Jones said, impacting the last day of school for all PK-12 students. A public hearing will be held to decide how to make up the lost days. The date for high school graduation will remain the same.
The district’s announcement appears to the first of its kind in Iowa as students begin their return to school. Last week, however, the Des Moines school district closed its administration building due to an outbreak.
The AHSTW district has about 675 students.
The FDA approved the COVID-19 vaccine. Don’t expect Iowa to join mandated vaccine list anytime soon
Aug. 23: The Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Monday morning. While the approval could lead to an increase in vaccine mandates from various employers and educational institutions across the country, don’t expect it to soon join the list of mandated shots for Iowa students.
Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law last spring that limits the ability of governmental entities to require COVID-19 vaccinations for entry into buildings — a law that the Iowa Department of Public Health guidance says extends to students, teachers, staff and visitors at public schools.
The law “prohibits the mandatory disclosure of whether a person has received a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition for entry onto the premises of a governmental entity,” the guidance states.
Current vaccine requirements for students at K-12 schools include the polio, measles/rubella, varicelia, hepatitis B, meningococcal and diphtheria/tetanus/pertussis inoculations. Parents can claim religious and medical exemptions.
The FDA’s vaccine approval applies to people 16 and older. The vaccine remains available to children ages 12 to 15 under an emergency use authorization. Vaccines for children under 12 remain unavailable.
Dr. Hao Tran, with University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, said last week that she expects Pfizer to release data on vaccinating 5-to-11-year-olds by the end of September, and that could set the stage for deployment by late 2021 or early 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on Monday showed 50.9% of Iowans are fully vaccinated. Of those 12 and older, the age group eligible for the vaccine, the number was 60%.
Perry goes back to school
Aug. 23: Kids walked hand-in-hand with their parents to the front of the Perry Elementary School on Monday for the first day of school. Students gave their family members hugs and said ‘hi’ to classmates and friends as new Perry Elementary Principal Ryan Marzen welcomed students into the building. Masks could be spotted on some of the students and families walking into the building — along with backpacks and sacks of supplies.
Also in Perry, students returned to St. Patrick’s School. See the photos below.
At Southeast Polk schools, the band plays on as students, masked and not, march into classrooms
Aug. 23: At Southeast Polk Junior High School, most students unloaded from cars unmasked, and walked straight into the building for class.
Other students gathered in the shared parking lot with the high school, hugging and high fiving, as the band practice between the baseball and softball fields.
Parent Patti Adamovicz sent her vaccinated 17-year-old son off to his senior year in a mask. She said they spoke about masking up ahead of time, and he made the choice to wear it.
“At this point he’s made the decision to wear it for now, and we’ll see how it goes,” she said. “He went back last year in March and wore it and said that it wasn’t an issue. No one really cared either way.”
Adamovicz said she’s hopeful school will remain in person all year but is paying attention to the rising number of cases.
“Definitely [the delta variant] is a concern because of everything that’s been happening,” she said. “The numbers are going up, and I’m hoping that if there is a higher number that we’ll have the option for people that want to stay in school or if people want to do virtual again, that we are given that chance.”
Axios: Group offering $7,000 in legal aid if Des Moines schools buck state law and require masks
Aug. 23: A group calling itself Iowans for Universal Masks in Schools is offering Des Moines Public Schools more than $7,000 to fight the state law banning mask mandates, according to Axios.
The offer isn’t under consideration currently, since there is no pending action on masks, district spokesperson Phil Roeder told the news organization. There is no mask mandate in Des Moines schools, though district Superintendent Tom Ahart said last week he’d enforce one if the school board issued it.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law at the end of the legislative session in May banning mask mandates in the state. The Biden administration last week threatened legal action against Iowa and other states with mask mandate bans. Reynolds rejected the federal push.
According to Axios, there are more than 82,000 kids in Polk County who aren’t eligible for the vaccine. The federal government has approved the Pfizer vaccine for children 12 and older.
Des Moines Public Schools don’t start class until Wednesday.
At Laura Ingalls Wilder Elementary in Indianola, parents gladly start the school, no masks required
Aug. 23: On Monday morning at Laura Ingalls Wilder elementary school in Indianola, Principal Amy Joe Naughton was greeting students and parents as they entered the building. About 425 children were about to start class
“The flow is pretty good,” Naughton said. “Of course, it’s the first day of school and everyone is stopping to take pictures.”
Overall, the families were happy for school to be starting in-person again, she said.
“Families are being very flexible and agreeable with our mask situation,” Naughton said. “Each classroom has an area set aside for social distancing so students who are wearing a mask can step to that area and take a break from their mask.”
Stephanie Stokes was wiping tears from her eyes as she dropped her children off Monday morning. It was the first year of school in an actual school building for both of her children, first-grader Hailey Curtis and kindergartener Hunter Curtis. Stokes and their father, Gary Curtis, kept Hailey home for her kindergarten year due to the pandemic. Both kids were “very excited, super excited,” for the new school year, their parents said. They were also fine with no mask requirements at the school.
“It’s good that masks are not required so the kids aren’t confused with what people are trying to say,” Stephanie Stokes said. “I’m OK with them going to school without masks.”
Lydia Wilson was trying to take a picture of her first-grade daughter, Adilynn Wilson, but Adilynn had her arms crossed tightly across her chest and a scowl on her face with her lower lip pushed out.
“Can you smile?” Lydia asked.
Her question was met with silence. It was Adilynn’s first year at Laura Ingalls Wilder Elementary. She transferred from the school system in Green, Iowa, where COVID-19 protocols led to a back-and-forth of openings and closures.
“I’m not concerned about COVID or the mask situation in the schools,” Lydia Wilson said. “If we get sick then we will deal with it, if it comes down to that.”
Des Moines Public Schools administration building to be closed all week due to COVID cases
Aug. 22: Des Moines Public Schools’ administrative headquarters will remain closed after more employees tested positive for COVID-19, a district spokesman said.
The district’s headquarters, 2100 Fleur Drive, and the Smouse Professional Learning Center, 2820 Center St., both closed Wednesday due to people testing positive for the virus. Eleven of the 75 people working in the Fleur Drive offices tested positive, and five of the approximately 30 Smouse employees. Some employees are still waiting for test results.
“Cases at the Smouse building have stabilized and staff can return there on Monday,” said Phil Roeder, district spokesman.
The administrative offices will remain closed through the end of the week.
“This situation is concerning because most of the positive results are breakthrough cases among people who have been vaccinated,” Roeder said.
Roeder had a sobering response when asked what would be different when people returned to the administrative office in a week.
“Unfortunately, it will probably be that we’re talking about how many cases are in schools rather than an office building,” he said.