Ann Lebo Press Conference May 5, 2020

Director of the Iowa Department of Education Dr. Ann Lebo speaks at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston, Iowa, on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. Lebo spoke about the requirement that school district submit Return to Learn plans to the state by July 1, 2020.

The Hardin County community will have to wait a couple more weeks to learn the details about how schools in the area will begin the new academic year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

School districts throughout the state were required to file a “Return to Learn” plan with the Iowa Department of Education on July 1. But the “plans” – little more than a list of yes or no assurances and acknowledgements of policies – don’t provide the kind of information many parents and students are looking for. Will learning be in-person or online? Will students’ everyday activities be different? Will masks be required? Those details, area superintendents have said, are still be worked out.

“What we’re more concerned with is what does the return to opening our school look like,” said Dr. Adam Zellmer, superintendent of the Eldora-New Providence and Hubbard-Radcliffe school districts. “We were waiting on the Iowa Department of Public Health and the legislature to come back and they came back and said a lot of these things will be local decisions. We went four months being told what to do in every aspect of our lives and now we’ve just completely flipped that switch.”

Zellmer was referring to school reopening guidance issued by the Iowa Department of Education on June 25. The guidance discourages districts from requiring face coverings and screening students’ and employees’ health as they enter a building. Instead, the department recommends teaching proper hand washing, posting signs about how to stop the spread of illness, and having a schedule for routine cleaning.

“Maybe not getting that clear guidance from the state does make it more difficult,” said AGWSR Superintendent Erik Smith. As an example, he said if the district would require students to wear masks, parents may ask why masks are not a requirement by the state. “We have to balance that out and figure it out,” he said.

The guidelines were met with criticism from some Iowa school leaders and the state teachers’ union (and followed up with a press release clarifying the reasoning behind the guidance). Others, like Tony Neumann, superintendent of the Iowa Falls and Alden school districts, weren’t surprised.

“That guidance was appropriate as far as Iowa being a local control state,” he said, referring to the tendency in Iowa to allow local school boards to make decisions about individual school districts. “It allows for the most local control possible.”

For better or worse, the state’s guidelines now leave those decisions in the hands of local districts and their boards of directors. Neumann, Zellmer, and Smith said it will take some time before they release any details about what school will look like - probably not until early August. Until then, they’ll be working as administrative teams with local school boards and with public health officials at Greenbelt Home Care/Hardin County Public Health.

“We have a whole wide list of options we’re considering,” Neumann said. “We’re in communication with Rocky Reents at Greenbelt Home Care and we’re just waiting for guidance.”

But even Reents, the public health coordinator at Greenbelt Home Care, said they guidance her agency is receiving from state health officials is vague.

“They like to do this with everything,” Reents said of state officials’ advice. “They say ‘Reach out to local public health,’ but we don’t necessarily have the tools we’re supposed to be giving them.”

Left without a clear idea of what data or advice will be provided to them, school districts are beginning to plan for all possibilities. Neumann said the district is considering how students may be bused to school, how they'll move through buildings, and what should happen if a student or school employee tests positive for COVID-19. 

Part of the planning has included some purchases based on current information about how the coronavirus spreads and what can be done to prevent it. In June, the Iowa Falls and Alden school boards approved purchasing classroom supplies for every elementary student so they don’t have to share things like glue sticks and scissors. Neumann said the district has also purchased one face mask for every student and employee.

Zellmer said the South Hardin schools have made purchases, too. Hand sanitizer and face masks – because those items have been in short supply since March and they want to make sure they have them in case they're needed if and when students return to school. Each building in the E-NP and H-R school districts will also have a chemical ionizer that can spray a disinfecting mist to clean rooms, books and surfaces.

“Those are things that we can use no matter what the scenario is,” Zellmer said. “It’ll be a great sanitation that we can do even during a typical flu season.”

The districts have also evaluated their technology needs. In Iowa Falls, the schools purchased an iPad for every first-grader, which means every student in the district will have access to a functioning electronic device that, if needed, can be sent home for distance learning. Zellmer said South Hardin also has a device for every student, and they can be sent home. The other consideration is internet accessibility. Zellmer said the district is looking at how it can provide internet service to students who are “economically disadvantaged.”

The Iowa Falls, Eldora-New Providence and AGWSR school boards are all scheduled to meet this week, and Return to Learn plans are on their agendas. The Iowa Falls School District has also started distributing weekly letters via social media that detail the direction of the planning. The Alden and Hubbard-Radcliffe boards are expected to discuss the plans at meetings next week.

Whatever decisions are made, area district leaders said they know school will start next month, that it will be required - not optional, as before - and that there are sure to be challenges ahead.

“Even if you didn’t know how to swim, you got thrown into the lake and you were forced to swim,” Zellmer said of adapting to the pandemic. “Through all of these challenges I’ve learned to expect the unexpected. As I think as a school leader now, I need to be thinking what are the ramifications and how can we be best prepared to ensure learning can continue to happen.”

Ackley World Journal Editor Becky Schipper contributed to this reporting.

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