K-12 students in an eastern Iowa district that took a huge hit from last month’s derecho are starting school in-person today.

The Benton Community School District serves eight rural communities in Benton, Tama and Iowa Counties. Parts of the school district’s buildings are still unusable, but enough repairs have been done for students to return in-person. Superintendent Pam Ewell says she’s still determining whether students’ basic needs are being met after the storm.

“We’ve done a lot of communications. We’ve had some families contact us,” she says. “Of course, with Covid mixed in there, some families were staying home anyway.”

The National Weather Service estimates the storm’s wind speeds reached 125 miles an hour when the August 10th storm blew through Benton County and officials estimate 90 percent of structures in the county were damaged or destroyed. As is the case in many areas hit by natural disasters, some families have moved to another district.

“We’ve talked as administrators, that kind of at the personal level, they know of some families that have had to double up with other families,” Ewell says.

Ewell hopes returning in-person will provide a sense of normalcy for students. The school’s football field is so damaged the Benton Community team will play all of its games outside the district.

Three of Iowa’s largest districts are starting school online today. Ames and Iowa City have a state waiver to teach all classes online for two weeks, given the number of Covid cases in each district. Des Moines Public Schools are starting online, without state permission. A judge could rule as soon as today on the Des Moines School District’s lawsuit challenging the state’s authority to require in-person instruction unless the spread of coronavirus cases in a community reaches certain thresholds.

Students from Des Moines and Ames marched to the governor’s mansion yesterday to protest having all extracurricular activities, including sports, suspended while classes are conducted online.

(By Iowa Public Radio’s Kate Payne)