North Iowa keeps classes in person after qualifying for waiver

By: 
Andrew Shaw

In-person classes will continue without interruption at North Iowa Community School, as the district has decided to continue to host students despite qualifying for a waiver to move all instruction online.

North Iowa Supt. Joe Erickson applied for a remote learning waiver with the Dept. of Education on Sept. 18, after North Iowa met state requirements for a waiver. Those requirements include at least 10% of students being absent from in-person classes and at least 15% of COVID-19 tests coming back positive in the county during the prior two-week period. North Iowa’s waiver was approved on the 18th and would allow the school to switch to remote learning through Oct. 2.

Erickson said he didn’t necessarily intend to move classes online when he submitted the application, but he wanted to have that option available in case the school board wanted to go that route. The board met for its regular monthly meeting last Monday, Sept. 21, where members discussed the recent cases of COVID-19 at the school and decided to continue with the current learning format that includes in-person classes with a remote learning option.

Erickson says he can always put in another application for a waiver if the situation calls for it. He says the board decided to stick to in-person learning for now based on community input and what they think is the best learning environment for students. He says another concern with moving entirely online is that the school would have had to cancel all activities, including fall sports practices and games.

The school will continue to set aside Wednesdays for online instruction, when teachers have a chance to catch up with their online-only students. Principal Joann Kenny says they’re looking to restructure Wednesdays to follow the school’s early out schedule for high school and middle school students, where classes will meet in eight periods during the day to help students see all their teachers. Elementary teachers will continue to check in with individual students on Wednesdays.

Erickson says it’s been a stressful three weeks for teachers as the school year has gotten underway. He says teachers are doing more than double the amount of work that’s normally expected of them. Miller praised the staff for having high expectations and trying to figure out how to do what’s best for the kids with both in-person classes and online learners, but she says there’s an extra amount of stress this year.

One option that was discussed for the elementary grades with two sections is to have one teacher handle in-person instruction while the other attends to the online learners. However, Erickson says the situation has been changing so quickly that it’s hard to plan something like that. He says the teachers are doing a great job of supporting one another.

“I am confident everybody is doing the best that they can. It continues to be a learning experience for us,” said Erickson.

The board also revisited the district’s mask policy, which emphasizes the use of masks when social distancing is not possible but does not require students to wear masks all the time. Supt. Erickson says overall, they’ve been successful with getting students to follow the policy. Principal Kenny says one area that still needs improvement is getting high school students to wear masks when going from one class to another. Principal Shawn Miller says the elementary kids have been very good about wearing masks and listening to teachers when they tell them to wear them. The board decided to leave the mask policy in place without any changes.

Board President Matt Duve brought up the topic of quarantines for students who have tested positive with COVID-19 or who have been in contact with someone who has. The school is requiring these students to quarantine and stay home from school for 14 days, and Duve said parents have asked him if the school has any authority to make its own decisions on how long to quarantine students. He noted that under the current policy, a student could come back from a 14-day quarantine only to get exposed again and have to go right back into another two-week quarantine. He also said a student under quarantine may not want to get tested, because a positive test would mean more time in quarantine.

Erickson says the 14-day quarantine requirement comes from the Iowa Dept. of Education and the Dept. of Public Health. He said the school’s attorney has advised him that sticking to a 14-day quarantine will protect the school from potential liability issues.

Miller said she feels bad for students who want to be in school and are stuck in quarantine, but she’d be mortified if they had a tragic case at school and they weren’t following the quarantine rules.

Erickson says from what he’s heard, none of the COVID-19 cases among students so far have been serious, and no one has had to be hospitalized. He notes that families can always move their students to online learning if they’re uncomfortable with sending their kids to school.

Board classifies staff as essential workers.

While students will continue to have to follow the 14-day quarantine if they’re exposed to COVID-19, the school board is giving teachers and staff the option to return to school after 48 hours in quarantine if they test negative for the illness and are symptom-free. The board did so by voting to classify staff members as essential workers.

Erickson says the move will help to ensure they have enough teachers on hand, because they might not be able to find enough substitutes if several teachers are quarantined at once. If quarantined teachers are not comfortable coming back to school, Erickson says there are leave benefits they can take. He emphasizes that quarantined staff members coming back to school early will need to maintain social distancing and wear masks while they’re working.

Principal Kenny notes that finding substitutes is a huge issue this year. “There gets to be a breaking point where if we don’t have [staff] coming back as essential employees, we’re not going to be able to serve lunch. We’re not going be able to run our bus routes unless we have ability to bring some people back in,” said Kenny.

“And we’re not going to be able to run classrooms,” adds Principal Miller.

Duve says classifying employees as essential workers should also enable them to get rapid testing for COVID-19.

 

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