Governor says Iowa schools to remain closed for semester

Friday, April 17, 2020

High school seniors statewide likely won't be attending a spring formal, competing in spring sports or even walking across a stage to "Pomp and Circumstance" this year. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said she plans to keep Iowa's schools closed for the remainder of the school year in light of the novel coronavirus.

"Believe me, I would like nothing more than to stand before you today and announce Iowa will be open for school in May," Reynolds said. "But, as we look at what the data is telling us now, I can't tell you with certainty based on the data the Department of Public Health is providing to the office, that early May will be the right time for students, teachers and staff to gather in their classrooms."

Okoboji Superintendent Todd Abrahamson confirmed Friday the district's prom has been cancelled, but the class of 2020 can still plan on Senior Awards Night and a graduation ceremony at a later date. Abrahamson's message to families said the two nights will be held in conjunction. The district is eyeing two dates June 14, July12 for the combined event, and hopes to hold the ceremonies in person if possible.

Okoboji graduation 2019
File photo

"Although this is not the outcome we had hoped for, we at Okoboji Schools have been preparing for this possibility and making plans in case it became reality," Abrahamson said.

Abrahamson said the Okoboji School District will continue with its current distance learning plan which was put in place last week. He said the district will not be allowing students to retrieve personal belongings from lockers and other classroom areas until restrictions on gathering sizes are lifted. However, retrieval of essential items can be arranged through each building's principal.

Spirit Lake Superintendent David Smith said school officials in that district will also be continuing with their voluntary curriculum and will still have dedicated hours of availability through May 22 the semester's originally scheduled end.

"No one ever imagined the magnitude of this crisis," Smith said. "Our school district understands how this decision will impact students specifically seniors parents, businesses and our community. There are no other feasible options at this time."

He also said the district will be developing more robust online content in the event the closures extend into next school year.

Spirit Lake graduation 2019
File photo by Dave Petrick

"We will bounce back," Smith said. "We will beat this invisible enemy. We will be more resilient and adaptable. We will, through this experience, become an

even stronger school and community than ever before."

The Harris-Lake Park School District shared its condolences with its student in a social media post following the governor's announcement.

"We were excited to watch our students graduate and our athletes compete for state titles," the message read. "No matter the ending, we thank you for your contributions to Harris-Lake Park and cherish the memories you gave us. Our hearts go out to all of you."

The governor went on to say the decision, like many others recently, was difficult, but she said the viral infection has yet to peak in Iowa. She said the decision was meant to give school districts time to prepare, and she will likely make a formal order at the end of the month when the current closure is set to expire. The expected closure includes the cancelation of spring sports programs, and the state plans to offer more information on summer sports by June 1.

The governor on March 15 first recommended all schools close through the end of that month. On April 2, she extended the closure to April 30 promising educators guidance two weeks ahead of the order's expiration.

Harris-Lake Park gradutaion 2019
File photo

Many school districts have moved to online models, offering "continuous learning opportunities" which are optional curriculum for students while they are away from the classroom. Public schools may require online learning but must provide certain resources in order to do so. Ann Lebo, director of the Iowa Department of Education, said hundreds of school districts adapted to the change in a short time frame following the March closures.

"Closing schools through the end of the year was not an easy decision," Lebo said. "We do know the challenges this brings, but we also know this is necessary to ensure the health and safety of those we serve."

She said school districts will need to prepare a plan for eventually returning to in-person education termed "Return to Learn" plans. Districts must submit their plans to the state by July 1, and Lebo said the state will respond with its recommendations. The director said district plans can include options like summer school, educational enrichment activities or other ideas which will compensate for the academic disruption caused by COVID-19 health precautions. Reynolds will also be waiving the requirement that schools start no earlier than Aug. 23. She hopes the decision will allow school districts and nonpublic schools to make local decisions about the length of their 2020-2021 academic year. The governor said districts could potentially begin class up to three weeks early in order to start remedial classes if necessary.

Decisions on whether students will be required to repeat grade levels will be up to individual districts, according to Lebo. She noted each of Iowa's 327 public schools and179 private schools are facing different challenges. Lebo also said the department is aware of other academic challenges, adding some students have recently taken jobs to help support their families as businesses across the state have cut hours and temporarily closed their doors.

Reynolds said she expects a phased approach to allowing businesses to reopen. The governor said two laboratories are currently ready to begin antibody testing related to the virus, which she said will help guide the state in its economic approach to the current crisis. She said testing for the antibodies will likely begin after the state's testing capacity is increased a request she said has already been made by the state.

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