Iowa’s largest school district held an online town hall last night as many parents are asking how schools will respond if there’s a COVID-19 outbreak.
Des Moines Public Schools health director Melissa Abbott says districts must report to the state when more than 10% of students are absent. What happens after that, she says, will be decided case-by-case with input from state health and education officials and the county health department.
“At this particular time, we don’t have a threshold about when a classroom or a school would be closed,” Abbott says, “and that is something that I, that Des Moines Public Schools can’t make independently.”
The district is looking into possible incentives to promote vaccinations and mask-wearing for students and staff. With the first day of school just one week away, Des Moines Superintendent Thomas Ahart says they plan to create a culture that follows CDC guidelines on wearing masks in classrooms, but state law stops them from being required.
Ahart says the district will ask teachers to demonstrate a culture of mask-wearing, although the law plays into that, too. “We cannot require staff to wear masks but we’re encouraging, in the strongest legal language, to model this practice,” Ahart says. “So, I’m confident that the vast majority of our staff will be modeling best practice for our students.”
Ahart says several of the questions submitted for the online event asked whether the district will challenge a state law stopping schools from requiring masks. In a statement he shared from the Des Moines school board, Ahart said any legal action the district takes would be decided in public with community input.
Ahart says the district’s virtual high school is full and has a waiting list, but there is still space in the virtual middle school. There is no limit to the number of elementary students who can sign up for a new self-paced online program.
(By Grant Gerlock, Iowa Public Radio)