In a workshop meeting on Friday, Des Moines Public School leaders and board members voiced apprehension and frustration about the latest round of guidance from the state regarding Return to Learn plans.
Superintendent Dr. Tom Ahart began the meeting by outlining the timeline of the coronavirus pandemic's impact on schools and the Des Moines district in particular, beginning in March with the delay and eventual shutdown of in-person instruction.
Ahart said after a May announcement from the Iowa Department of Education regarding what should be included in each district's Return to Learn plan, administrators, teachers, and others in the district went to work doing "countless hours and blood, sweat and tears" to come up with a safe plan for students and staff.
The district's Return to Learn plan was submitted to the state and approved in early July. A few weeks later, the governor announced further instruction for districts, saying that in-person learning must take place 50% of the time. Des Moines' plan did not account for that.
Since that time, Ahart said he has had discussions with the state's head of Department of Education, voicing his concerns for his district and asking for flexibility in meeting the new requirements.
"We were out of the gate early, thinking that we were compliant, and at the time of the conversation, nearly two-thirds of our students had registered, and I was given no help in that regard," said Ahart. "As much as flexibility has been emphasized by the department and the governor's office as far as Return to Learn instruction, it certainly does not feel that way to me and to my team."
Noelle Nelson, Executive Director of Teaching & Learning for DMPS, voiced particular concerns regarding the Return to Learn plan for high schools.
"Currently we do not have any high school plans that both meet state regulations and achieves our safety goals, the one day a week plus the Central Campus plan, that was determined based on our desire to safely distance our kids...," Nelson said. "So essentially, the high school continues to be our biggest concern and we're struggling unless we are willing to compromise on safety. We frankly don't have a Plan B for high school."
Des Moines Public Schools is working on the following changes to its Return to Learn plan:
- Delay the start of the school year to shortly after Labor Day. Professional Development days currently scheduled throughout the year would be held prior to the start of classes so that the 2020-21 school year ends as currently scheduled.
- The 2020-21 school year would begin fully virtual across all grade levels.
- As soon as it is safe to do so, DMPS would transition to the hybrid learning model for elementary and middle school students who registered for that plan.
- High school classes would most likely be held entirely online for the Fall semester, with the exception of some in-person classes at Central Campus.
Moving to fully-virtual instruction does not currently comply with the state's guidelines issued earlier this month.