Iowa bills would require schools to offer 100% in-person learning. Here's how that would work.

Iowa school districts would be required to offer students the option to attend classes exclusively in-person under two bills Republican lawmakers filed this week. 

The bills, representing one of Gov. Kim Reynolds' top priorities for the 2021 session, come just over a week after the governor called for the Legislature to fast-track the legislation in her Jan. 12 Condition of the State address.

"Our kids can't wait any longer," Reynolds said in her speech.

Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature, signaled early in the session that they support the idea. 

Lawmakers in the Iowa Senate and House have filed separate bills in response to the governor's call. Reynolds' spokesperson, Pat Garrett, said Thursday the governor is not expected to file a bill of her own on the topic. 

Here's what you need to know about the new bills: 

What will the bills do?

Both bills, Senate Study Bill 1064 and House File 103, apply to Iowa's public school districts and accredited private school districts. While many are currently offering in-person classes five days a week, some are holding classes using a hybrid model that blends in-person instruction and virtual instruction due to the spreading coronavirus. 

The Senate bill, filed Wednesday by Senate Education Committee chair Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, would require school districts to provide parents and guardians of students enrolled in the district the option of sending their students to full-time in-person instruction beginning the second Monday after the bill goes into effect.

A school district not currently providing that opportunity must send parents and guardians notice that it is offering the option and give them at least five days to decide whether to choose the option.

Parents and guardians could still enroll their children fully online and schools could offer virtual or hybrid options.

Schools must be in compliance with this new law to receive credit for their instructional time requirements. The Senate bill does allow for exceptions, such as under a health emergency proclamation from the governor. The bill also allows the Iowa Department of Education to exempt a school from the requirements by taking into account the number of teachers quarantining from coronavirus exposure and the scarcity of substitute teachers and school bus drivers. 

The bill's requirements expire June 30. 

The House bill, filed Thursday by Republican Reps. John Landon and Garrett Gobble, both of Ankeny, would similarly require schools to allow care-takers to enroll their students full-time in in-person instruction. The bill would not apply to the CAM or Clayton Ridge school districts, which provide courses primarily over the internet. 

Unlike the Senate bill, the House bill would take effect immediately upon enactment and does not currently allow for school districts to receive exemptions. In an interview with the Des Moines Register, Gobble said lawmakers plan to continue to work out more details as the bill moves through the process. 

"It's simply stating the expectation that a school needs to offer parents that choice," he said. 

What does existing Iowa law require? 

Under a law the Legislature passed last year and signed Reynolds signed in June, Iowa schools must provide "primarily" in-person instruction unless the governor issues a public health emergency addressing school closures.

Reynolds' administration interprets "primarily" as requiring schools to provide at least 50% of their instruction in-person. 

While the law gives the governor the power to allow less than 50% in-person instruction during an emergency, it does not allow the governor to mandate more than that, which is why she is working with the Legislature on the new measures. 

In mid-July, as schools began to prepare to resume for the fall as the coronavirus continued to spread, Reynolds issued an emergency proclamation that upheld the 50% requirement but allowed schools to apply for a waiver to go fully online if coronavirus spread reached a certain threshold. That proclamation remains in effect, although no Iowa schools currently have waiver approval

Why does Reynolds want to mandate in-person learning?

In her Condition of the State address, Reynolds said she has heard the frustration from parents, students and teachers who live in districts that don't offer full in person instruction.

She offered a handful of examples, saying students are falling behind because of online instruction and parents are struggling to balance working with helping their children at school. 

Reynolds has also stressed the importance of the services students receive while attending school in-person that they cannot receive online, as well as the potential mental health effects of students being isolated.

Read: Gov. Kim Reynolds' full 2021 Condition of the State address

Do Iowa lawmakers support this bill?

Following Reynolds' Condition of the State address last week, Republicans in the Iowa Legislature signaled support.

Sinclair said she brought the bill forward in part because of the governor's call to legislators and due to stories she heard about students failing and falling behind. 

“The data says that in-person instruction for most children is the ideal form of instruction,” Sinclair said.

She stressed that the bill is a way to give families another option for educating their children. 

“The biggest thing to note is we are not removing the opportunity for parents to choose to have their kids online. We are not removing the opportunity for school districts to provide a hybrid model, if they so choose,” Sinclair said.

Rep. Ras Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, said Wednesday that he supports in-person instruction, but Iowa needs to take more steps before it will be safe statewide.

"We have to do the basics first," he said. "At the end of the day, we're talking about getting the virus under control in our communities before we send our students and our teachers and our loved ones back into an environment that is hard to control based on the number of students and staff in the building." 

He said Iowa needs to address staffing needs and provide schools the resources they need to take the proper precautions among other steps before requiring in-person instruction.

Republican leaders in both chambers said they expect the bills to be fast-tracked. Both will have their initial subcommittee meetings on Monday afternoon. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said the Senate plans to bring their bill to the floor as soon as possible. House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said the House bill could move through the Education Committee next week.

"As far as the language goes, we're working with the Senate and the governor to make sure that we can all be on the same page," Grassley said Thursday. 

How are Iowa school districts preparing?

Des Moines Public Schools already has a plan in the works to offer students a 100% in-person option in case the mandate is signed into law. 

During Tuesday night's regular school board meeting, Des Moines Superintendent Tom Ahart told the board plans were in the works to have an all in-person option ready for second semester. This would not affect students who are participating in online learning.

From Nov. 16 until early January, students had been attending school online. Earlier this month, the district switched to a hybrid model where students attended school in-house several days a week. 

The district's second semester begins Monday. 

"That transition will take a bit of time," Ahart said. "So, we're designing how we begin the second semester at all three levels to make that transition (go) more smoothly in the event that we need to do that." 

The district has been anticipating moving to a five-day a week in-person option, Phil Roeder, the Des Moines district's director of communications and public affairs, said.

"When our families were asked to select a learning model for the second semester ... we informed them that the in-person option could remain hybrid or change to a full week," Roeder wrote. "The state has indicated they were going to move quickly to mandate school districts offer a 5-day in-person option, so we will wait to see exactly what is required of Iowa school districts." 

The Iowa Department of Education doesn't track how many individual school districts are meeting 100% in-person versus a hybrid model. 

Are there health concerns with in-person instructions?

Iowa has seen a sustained high in the number of coronavirus cases over the past several months, including a large spike in November

While children appear to be less likely become seriously ill with the the virus than adults, particularly the oldest adults, some data shows older children do appear just as likely to spread the virus as adults, according to the American Academy of Pediatricians.

Research continues into what role schools have played in spreading the virus. Some experts have pointed to indicators that schools do not appear to be driving infections in their communities. Reynolds has said in Iowa, transmission among students in schools appears to be rare, and children are more often infected by members of their family.

According to the AAP's most recent guidance for schools, schools should look at the amount of virus spreading locally to determine whether reopening is feasible. Experts agree that higher community spread in an area creates a higher risk. 

“It’s not safe to open schools with widespread community transmission because kids spread it just as effectively as adults,” Dr. Eli Perencevich, an epidemiology and internal medicine professor at the University of Iowa, told the Register earlier this month.

What about teachers' health? 

Iowa is expanding priority groups for the coronavirus vaccine starting Feb. 1 to include several groups, including school staff. But it's unlikely all teachers will be able to receive the vaccine by the time schools are mandated to open, if the law is fast tracked.

“We would like to see the bill to minimally say it's effective once staff has had a chance to be vaccinated,” said Margaret Buckton, executive director of the Urban Education Network. “And that will really help us balance safety needs of staff and students with the learning needs of students that we all hope to have happen because we want kids back in school full time for sure.”

Melissa Peterson, Iowa State Education Association lobbyist, said she wants to see implementation of the in-person mandate to be slowed down until school staff are vaccinated. 

“It would be really wonderful if our education staff had an opportunity to take that vaccine prior to being forced back into 100% instruction circumstance,” Peterson said. “And so knowing that deadline of eligibility is approaching, it'd be great if these pieces of legislation could coincide.”

Peterson said legislators should include health and safety measures, like facemask requirements or giving schools enough time to plan other safety measures including social distancing, as they look at education measures.

“That is our concern, it seems that we're moving forward with the requirement to do the instruction, but we're not moving forward with any mandate that it be done safely,” Peterson said.

Ian Richardson covers the Iowa Statehouse for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at irichardson@registermedia.com, at 515-284-8254, or on Twitter at @DMRIanR.

Contact Samantha Hernandez at 515-851-0982 or svhernandez@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @svhernandez or Facebook at www.facebook.com/svhernandezreporter/.