Kids Are Being Shoved Back to School in Iowa, and Teachers Aren't Having It

Teachers are suing the governor, who is mandating in-person schooling as the pandemic tears through the state.
August 20, 2020, 2:05pm
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File

Iowa’s largest teachers union and its fifth-largest school district are suing Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds over a mandate she issued in July requiring schools to open this fall with at least 50% in-person instruction. It’s one of the highest-profile standoffs yet between educators and state governments that want them to return to the classroom.

The lawsuit, filed in an Iowa district court Wednesday against both Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Education, charges that Reynolds’ proclamation “exceeded her constitutional and statutory authority,” and asked the court to rule the mandate unconstitutional and prevent the state from enforcing it.

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“Petitioners have a clear legal right to insist the government of Iowa, led by Respondent Reynolds, protect them to the greatest extent possible from threats to public health and safety including outbreaks of infectious diseases such as the COVID-19 pandemic,” lawyers for the union and the school district said in the filing.

The fight between Reynolds and her state’s teachers is the latest bout in the ongoing struggle over education during the pandemic, as students begin to return to school while COVID-19 still rages through the United States.

So far, there’ve been more than 5.5 million cases confirmed nationally and more than 173,000 deaths, according to the New York Times; in Iowa (population 3.1 million), there have been more than 53,000 confirmed positive cases and 1,011 deaths.

Reynolds has been one of the most aggressive governors in her effort to force students and teachers back into the brick-and-mortar classroom. Her July edict said that in order for districts to even request a move to online instruction, their counties had to have an eye-popping 15% average positive testing rate over a two-week period.

Health experts say that the testing rate in an area should be 5% or lower; a 15 % positive test rate would rival Florida’s during its recent COVID-19 spike. “They decided they wanted to open schools and then set the threshold, rather than deciding what’s safe and meeting that target,” University of Iowa infectious disease expert Eli Perencevich told the AP. “They did it backwards.”

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Like President Donald Trump, Reynolds has argued that children are “less likely” to contract COVID-19 and spread it. Schools and universities that have reopened and then closed due to coronavirus clusters prove otherwise.

Making matters more complicated is that Iowa’s coronavirus data has been called into question after an embarrassing error was discovered this week. On Wednesday, the state’s health department said it had fixed a “glitch” that recorded recent positive results as happening months ago. Dana Jones, the Iowa City nurse practitioner who pointed out the error, told the Des Moines Register that the mistake left her “flabbergasted.”

“This has major implications for my trust,” she added.

While the fights over reopening have so far been limited to the courtroom and public protests, teachers all over the country aren’t ruling out labor actions. The American Federation of Teachers, one of the two largest national teachers’ unions in the United States, gave the OK to its locals last month to carry out “safety strikes.” The Detroit Federation of Teachers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike on Wednesday.

"It is not an action we take lightly. It is a vote of confidence that we will do whatever we need to do to ensure the safety of our members and students of Detroit Public Schools Community District," DFT president Terrence Martin said.

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Cover: In this July 29, 2020, file photo, custodian Doug Blackmer cleans a desk in a classroom at the Jesse Franklin Taylor Education Center in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)