DES MOINES, Iowa – The Iowa Senate Education Committee voted ten to five on Monday afternoon in favor of SSB 1064, a bill that requires school districts and accredited nonpublic schools to offer a full-time, in-person learning opportunity for their students.
(Watch the committee debate in the video above.)
Some school districts, such as Des Moines Public Schools, have lagged in offering any in-person learning opportunities. State law currently requires that at least 50 percent of a school’s core instruction include in-person learning unless a school district or accredited nonpublic school receives a waiver from the Iowa Department of Education due to local positivity or school absentee rates.
State Senator Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, who managed the bill in committee, during his opening remarks, said, ” I can tell you that when I was door-knocking this last fall for my reelection, I constantly heard from parents pleading to get their kids back in school. And it didn’t matter what school district I was in.”
Zaun stressed that this bill, which will sunset on June 30, 2021, if passed, does not eliminate online education as an option for parents.
“I think that’s very important that people know that because there (are) certain circumstances where health reasons, etc, where a parent would opt to do the online learning as well,” he said.
Democrats on the committee lined up against the bill.
State Senator Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Windsor Heights, said her family decided to keep their kids home and online this school year.
“I’m the mom of an eight-year-old and a 10-year-old in the public schools. And this year has challenged my family beyond anything we ever anticipated. And I know schools are really struggling to make things work. And I saw the districts in my community really work hard on creating plans according to the choices laid out by our governor. They’ve engaged that in good faith with lots of hard work bringing in parents and students, educators, their staff, and public experts for public health. And the choices they made were very specific to their local realities. And most, in every case, the local reality they had to deal with was staffing and space. And they did the best they could with insufficient resources,” she said.
“So after a decade of inadequate funding for schools, my public school district class sizes are already too large for really good education, let alone educating during a public health disaster,” Trone Garriott added. “And when the entire school district had to go online, it was because too many staff were sick or exposed in the school building could not function without them. If our governor wants schools to be guaranteed 100 percent in-person option, we need to put forth some effort and some resources to make it happen.”
State Senator Eric Giddens, D-Cedar Falls, who served on the Cedar Falls School Board before his election to the Iowa Senate, appealed to local control.
“In situations where we needed to make decisions in the best interest of our school district, I know firsthand that we did the best job we could using data, local data, from local experts in every type of situation to do our best in good faith to make decisions in the best interest of our students and our staff, and our community. Frankly, I see no reason that we can’t continue to do that right now,” he said.
State Senator Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, pointed out that while the Reynolds Administration raised the prioritization for teachers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, they have not received the vaccine yet.
“I just want to make the point that this bill just comes at a really awkward and bad time. We should be waiting until our educators can be safe, till they go back into the classroom, get their vaccinations, and do everything we can to make sure that more teachers don’t die,” she said.
State Senator Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, pointed that a vaccination is not available for students under the age of 16. Children, however, are the least likely to become seriously ill or become hospitalized by COVID-19.
He pointed to President Joe Biden’s in-person learning plan.
“But unlike this bill, President Biden’s proposal actually has some money attached to pay for the extra costs of PPE, to pay for the extra costs of ventilation modification, to pay for vaccination. What we have here in front of us is an unfunded mandate,” he said.
In his closing comments, Zaun called many of the points made by Democratic lawmakers “scare tactics.”
He said he wanted to deal with facts.
“One thing we do know, based on a news report that 37 percent of Iowa City Schools had a one or more failing grade. That’s double the number since COVID started,” Zaun said.
“One thing that we know is that there the waiver process is still in place in this bill. Parents are still going to have the opportunity to decide if they want to send their kids to school for in-school learning or if they want to do (it) online. The waiver process in case there’s a spike in COVID cases is still in place,” he stated.
“The Center for Disease Control study states schools do not transmit more rapidly than large populations. And transmission rates were significantly lower among elementary students,” Zaun argued.
He pointed out there are several studies that reinforce the CDC study. He said their conclusion is that provided a school implements mitigation standards; students should be in school.
Zaun pointed out there are 16 school districts that have not provided this option for students. He said parents are frustrated.
“They’ve been forced to work at home. There (are) many of our parents that we represent our dual income. It’s disruptive,” he said.
Zaun asked what school districts are doing with the money they receive from the state, pointing out that many of their expenses decrease due to students not meeting in-person, such as food service and transportation costs. He also pointed out that most school districts in Iowa provide in-person learning.
“I want to compliment a lot of the school districts that are out there that are offering this. This has nothing to do with you. This has to do with the school districts that are out there not offering in-person instruction,” he concluded.
The bill will now be placed on the calendar for floor debate before the entire Iowa Senate.