DES MOINES, Iowa – On Friday, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed SF 160, a bill that requires Iowa’s schools to offer parents a full-time, in-person learning option for their students. Upon the bill’s enactment, schools that are not currently doing this have to have that option in two weeks.
“I’m pleased to take another important step forward in our COVID recovery by ensuring that every child and family in Iowa has the opportunity to attend school 100% in person if that’s their choice,” she said.
“Iowa was one of the few states that reopened its schools in the fall, and the vast majority of our school district welcomed their students back for full-time in-person learning in August. I commend those school districts, from their leadership and board members to their teachers and staff, for doing what was necessary to bring kids back to the classroom and allow the families that they serve to choose what’s best for their children,” Reynolds stated.
“Unfortunately, that option hasn’t been available for every family. Many have struggled to balance working from home with helping their young children navigate online learning. Other parents whose jobs demand that they’re in the workplace each day are constantly juggling childcare and transportation needs to accommodate the changing schedule of a hybrid model,” she added.
The Iowa Legislature passed a bill that she signed into law in June that required in-person learning to be at least 50 percent of a students’ learning experience as schools reopened.
“That 50 percent threshold was identified as a starting point. But it was never intended to be the end game. And it shouldn’t be,” Reynolds said.
“We now have the benefit of months of evidence that shows schools are the safest place for our kids to be. Transmission among our students is low, and spread isn’t occurring due to contact in schools. Still, the safe return of students and teachers is absolutely critical,” she added.
Reynolds said the federal government allocated $400 million in CARES Act funding for Iowa schools to reopen safely.
“Sadly, the biggest risk to our students is their continued absence from school,” she said.
Listen to her remarks below:
The Iowa Senate passed SF 160 on Thursday by a 29 to 18 party-line vote. The Iowa House followed with a mostly party-line 59 to 39 vote, with State Rep. Wes Breckenridge, D-Newton, voting with Republicans.
During the Iowa Senate’s floor debate, State Senator Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, accused Governor Reynolds of attempting to settle a score with urban school districts like Des Moines Public Schools.
“Is there a single person in Iowa that believes that kids should not be in school right now? Do you know of anybody that thinks that? But forcing some kids back to school in the middle of an uncontrolled global pandemic is dangerous. This bill is nothing more than Governor Reynolds settling a political score with large urban school districts that disagreed with her,” he said.
“From the beginning, Governor Reynolds made a bunch of decisions regarding nonsensical metrics for the opening of our schools that had nothing to do with CDC guidance. She went out of her way to disregard public health advice,” Bolkcom asserted. “All the while local school boards, superintendents, teachers, and staff have worked tirelessly with the help of the best public health guidance to operate schools safely.”
The Iowa Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control both encouraged in-person learning with mitigation protocols, and multiple studies showed that it was safe for students to return to learn in-person.
State Senator Robert Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, also opposed the bill.
“We want kids back in school, but we want it done safely. It is not being done safely now, and this bill will make it worse,” he said.
State Senator Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Windsor Heights, recounted stories she heard from school nurses.
She said one nurse recounted to her, “A friend said to me. I’m safer working in the COVID unit than you are in that school district. We’re near a children’s hospital. We have medically vulnerable kids who move to the area to be near their specialist,” she said. “They don’t always decide to stay home. Our teachers are terrified that they will expose them to COVID and kill them.”
Trone Garriott said one-size-fits-all does not work.
“This one size fits all approach does not work everywhere. And it actually might not be working right now in your districts. Have you asked? Are you talking to those folks? It’s reckless to force districts who have determined what they can do to move to something that they didn’t plan on doing. This bill does not take into account what schools need right now. It does not provide any support. It just says do this,” she said.
State Senator Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, appealed to local control.
“We need to allow local school boards to decide what’s best for their kids and support them in any way we can during a disastrous time in Iowa’s history,” she said.
State Senator Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, who floor managed the bill, said he hates that the bill became so partisan during his closing remarks.
“This should not be a partisan issue. And I think there’s been a lot of miscommunication on the floor here today. What this bill does is, it does give flexibility to school districts. What this bill does not do, it doesn’t force kids back in the classroom,” he said.
“It gives parents the choice based on what you think is in the best interest of your children to either go to school 100 percent of the time or continue to go online if that’s what you choose. There is no doubt. I don’t think anybody could argue in here that our kids are falling behind,” Zaun argued.
He pointed out this bill only impacts the 15 public schools and one non-public school that have resisted returning to in-person learning full-time as an option for parents.
“Parents are upset. Parents want their kids back in class. They recognize that their kids are falling behind. These are incredible circumstances that we’ve never witnessed before. And it’s been a learning process,” Zaun said. “Who I trust is the parents (sic). I trust their judgment. There is nothing more local than allowing parents to decide what’s in the best interest of their kids. And we are hurting our kids for not allowing them the option to be in school.”
Listen to the Iowa Senate debate below:
During the Iowa House debate, State Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said that hybrid learning helped schools who struggled to find enough subs and to keep up with sanitizing the school.
“That’s why schools have gone to the hybrid model was to be able to social distance their students, to be able to clean regularly, and to be able to offer a quality program that kept kids safe, and kept their staff in the buildings. Because every time a teacher ends up having to quarantine and you don’t have enough subs to be able to take their place, you put those children at risk, and you put the learning of those children at risk. Because a lot of times what they’re doing is putting those kids in classrooms together. So then you’ve already created a situation where you are not able to social distance. And kids again, are subject to be getting sick from the disease,” she said.
State Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, complained about what the bill lacked.
“This bill as it stands has nothing in it to help schools or staff absolutely nothing. It simply tells schools to get back to work full time ASAP: two weeks, no mention of the CDC recommendations such as improved ventilation systems, wearing masks. It doesn’t even mention social distancing in the bill. Nothing is required of schools but to get those kids back in there. We don’t care if it’s safe. We don’t care if the teachers get sick. Get them back in the classroom. That’s all we care about,” she said.
State Rep. Christina Bohannan, D-Iowa City, said that she believes the bill takes parents’ options away.
“I think that this bill is dangerous for teachers and staff. I think it’s ultimately going to be counterproductive for the kids. I mean, I think we’re actually going to end up with fewer kids in the classroom for fewer hours. Because once we go to 100 percent in-person option, it’s going to limit the options of other people,” she said.
She noted that as the buildings get crowded, more students will have to quarantine, pointing out that student-athletes in the Iowa City School District have already had to quarantine, some even twice.
“These students miss 10 to 12 days of instruction every time they go in quarantine. And that is just going to increase. We’re just going to have more of that. And that means they can’t be in the classroom at all,” she said.
State Rep. Phil Thompson, R-Jefferson, the floor manager of the bill in the Iowa House, said that parents need to have a choice during his closing comments.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that every member of this chamber understands that our classrooms provide much, much more than quality academic curriculum, although that is a major factor in proposing this bill. In-person learning provides social support, mental health support, nutritious meals, and many other benefits that parents weigh in choosing the education method that works best for their children,” he said. “Senate File 160 aims to accomplish one main goal to give parents a seat at the table and making the best choice for their kids’ education. In-person learning works best for many of our students full time and all day. It needs to be an option for all families. Senate File 160 ensures that I was schools are serving the needs of all students and families.”
Listen to the Iowa House debate below: