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Iowa School Districts Grapple With Challenges of Teaching Students During Pandemic

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IOWA — Parents all over Iowa have learned just how tough it can be to try to take on the role of classroom teacher. For some it came easy, but for others it’s been an exercise in frustration. Des Moines parent Patrick Dix says, “We should have the flexibility as a school district to keep kids safe and keep them moving forward in school!”

It’s a challenging balancing act for education leaders. Dr. Ann Lebo, the director of the Iowa Department of Education, says the 327 school districts in the state have flexibility when it comes to developing “Return to Learn” plans, but the learning will now be required and these seven areas must be addressed:

  1. Leadership
  2. Infrastructure
  3. Health and Safety
  4. Iowa Academic Standards
  5. Social-Emotional-Behavioral Health
  6. Equity
  7. Data

“Before we get to the point where we say this is what we’re going to do, we’re going to have to have an understanding of what can be done safely with what we have,” Lebo says. And she thinks the return of summer sports might offer some insight. “With the recent decision to open sports and some summer learning for students, it will give us an idea about what school could be with limited populations of students. I think this first experience in the month of June will teach us a lot and help guide us about how to move forward.”

Almost all school districts are developing multiple “what if” plans. Johnston has three; one for in-person learning, one for online, and one that blends the two. After months of research and meetings, Des Moines has developed a hybrid. “We’ve been exploring a variety of options and none of them seem very realistic,” says Dr. Thomas Ahart.

Back in May, the superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools said he was feeling very uncertain about what the fall might look like, especially when it comes to following social distancing guidelines. “You start doing that math on that … how many students could you safely have in a classroom or a bus? It becomes a calculation that just doesn’t pan out,” said Ahart.

Dr. Lebo agrees and gives the example that a typical 77-passenger bus could only hold 13 students if everyone has to be six feet apart. The average high school class in Des Moines has roughly 25 students in it but could only hold ten with social distancing in place. “There are some things we can’t change,” she explains, “we can’t build more schools by fall, we can’t add on additional classrooms by fall, we can’t buy that many buses by fall.”

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