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Schools finishing return-to-learn plans

School boards making decisions as COVID-19 cases climb in the state

Local school districts this week have been deciding the final details of their return-to-learn plans.

Those plans, which have been in progress since June, are supposed to be completed and approved by school boards in the coming weeks. The plans cover how students can resume learning – either face-to-face or online – while staying protected from COVID-19.

Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a proclamation July 17 making face-to-face learning a priority. That mandate is being incorporated into plans.

The plans are being developed against the backdrop of a White House Coronavirus Task Force report released earlier this week identifying Iowa as a “red zone” for the number of recent cases, more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population in the past week.

In the report, Washington County is declared a “yellow zone” county, meaning the county reported between 10 and 100 new cases per 100,000 population or had a diagnostic test positivity result between 5 percent and 10 percent.

Neither Henry nor Jefferson counties were identified as red or yellow zones.

Washington Public Health Director Danielle Pettit-Majewski said an important part of reopening schools is making decisions based on science, keeping track of community spread and having a “good understanding of what the reality is and what the ramifications could be.”

“There will likely be disruptions,” she said. “It’s not going to be a normal year.”

With so many unaccounted variables, the public health director added it will be difficult to predict what the year will look like or how likely it is for an outbreak to occur.

“There’s just so many unknowns. Do we have fewer cases with children because they haven’t been in school? We don’t know. Maybe we find that they do reduce spread but there have been instances where there have been bad outcomes for not just students, but also teachers.”

As of right now, with schools set to meet face-to-face, Pettit-Majewski said conversations have been focused on mitigation measures to keep students, teachers and other faculty as safe as possible.

The public health director added districts are expected to receive further guidance from the Department of Education next week.

“The CDC guidance hasn’t changed on the best way to mitigate this virus,” the director added.

In schools, specifically, measures include teaching good hand hygiene, maintaining 6-feet social distancing when possible, use of face coverings and routine disinfection of surfaces.

Pettit-Majewski said there have been many conversations around the use of masks and how that may impact learning, especially for younger students.

Several districts, including Washington Community School District, have yet to make an official decision on whether coverings will be required.

“The recommendation is that they use something, a shield or a mask, as long as there’s no underlying reason a student can’t,” she said.

Pettit-Majewski added it’s important for parents and guardians to start talking about and normalizing the use of face coverings before school starts to help get students comfortable.

But with the start of school still nearly a month out, the landscape of the pandemic can alter drastically in a short amount of time.

“Lots can change in the coming few weeks,” Chris Estle, Jefferson County Public Health administrator, said.

Estle, who noted the county had three new cases at the beginning of the week, said the area is remaining “cautiously optimistic” but with other respiratory illnesses like colds and flus circulating as school starts, it will be even more important for residents to follow recommendations and mitigation guidelines.

“I’ve said this several times, but the health of the public depends on the actions of the public. People don’t realize the impact they have as an individual,” she said.

When making a decision on whether to send their child back to school, Estle advised families and parents to look “objectively at return-to-learn plans” and understand the virus is a communicable disease. She added there are other considerations to make when weighing risks, including the mental health of a child, their access to good nutrition and the importance of routine.

“It may be a new routine, but it’s important for all of us to move forward in a positive way,” she said.

Henry County Public Health Director Shelley Van Dorin echoed Estle’s sentiments and added families will need to do what they “feel most comfortable.”

“If they have a chronically ill child or a child more likely to get COVID, it’s going to be a personal decision on the parents’ behalf,” she said.

While data from early studies suggest children under the age of 10 are less likely to be transmitters of the virus, Van Dorin said it’s important to remain vigilant.

“COVID is out there. It’s in our community. It just depends on who gets it and where they’ve been,” she said.

The public health director has been working with county schools for the last two months. Her department continues to plan with districts on how to deal with potential cases as students return. This has included continued discussion about what levels of community spread will lead to a change in the instructional model.

“We’re still looking at that 10 percent [threshold],” she said, “Depending on the situation, it may not affect the whole school of just a classroom. We don’t know what it’ll look like until we get started, but we’re working very hard to keep people safe.”

In light of Gov. Kim Reynold’s July 17 Proclamation of Disaster Emergency, many schools across Iowa are preparing to enter the new school year in a face-to-face learning model. This return to the classroom comes as the state sees an uptick in positive cases.

In a federal report dated July 26, the White House Coronavirus Task Force identified Iowa as a “red zone for cases” and a “yellow zone for test positivity.” The classification indicates the state has “more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population” in the last week.

Locally, in southeast Iowa, Washington County received a yellow zone designation,