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Editorial: Who do you trust?
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Editorial: Who do you trust?

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Who do you trust to educate your kids? To keep them safe?

We believe most people would put their trust in local teachers, superintendents and school boards.

That’s especially true in a time of crisis.

Unfortunately, Iowa schools that had been working collaboratively for weeks on return-to-learn plans for the 2020-21 academic year were undermined last Friday by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.

The governor declared that schools, no matter what they were planning previously, would have to return to in-person classes at least half the time. The news prompted an outcry from many educators.

In her proclamation, the governor cited a state law, passed by the state Legislature in mid-June and signed on June 29, which said districts could not “primarily” offer online learning. Some Democratic legislators, however, say the governor is taking liberties with a bill that also includes language providing leeway to local school officials on this question.

Whatever the case, the fact is that districts were thrown for a loop by the governor's proclamation.

In fact, several districts were formulating plans to rely heavily on online instruction, at least at the start of the year.

Davenport’s superintendent, Robert Kobylski, was planning a mostly online model at the outset because of concerns over the number of coronavirus cases locally. He outlined his ideas to the board last week and planned to present a final version to the board on Monday.

The Des Moines and Iowa City districts had also developed plans that relied on remote learning because of the same concerns. Other districts also had plans that didn’t seem to conform to the governor’s 50% rule.

It’s clear the governor's proclamation came as a surprise to a lot of districts. In our discussions with local school officials, and judging by their remarks to others, it’s clear that all were caught off guard by the announcement.

School starts in only a month, after all.

Since last Friday, districts have been adjusting. And the governor’s order does provide for a waiver process for districts and buildings that want to offer more online learning than what the governor's proclamation allows. That said, Kobylski told us Monday it wasn’t clear what that process looked like.

In a consultation with the state education department, he said districts were told to "sit tight."

The department did post a document at some point Monday providing answers to frequently asked questions, but important questions about the waiver process remain. Among them: How would districts qualify to go to mostly online learning? The governor’s proclamation says a waiver could be granted if "public conditions" warrant. But what does that mean?

The answer to that question appears to be, "sit tight." The Des Moines Register reported on Wednesday that the education department says it is working with the state public health department and expects to have guidance in the first week of August.

Did we mention that schools are supposed to start the third week of August?

The governor’s proclamation does say there will be an exception for parents who don’t want to send their kids back to school this fall, if their districts offer a remote learning option.

Let’s be clear: Most districts want to go in-person instruction as soon as it is feasible. We believe that is best, too. We have read the reports about the drawbacks of remote learning. We have concerns especially about how at-risk and special education students would be educated in a remote environment. There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction with these — or really, any — student population.

We also have seen the studies that say younger children are less likely to be infected with the coronavirus. But we’re also quite sure our local superintendents know all this, too. So do our local health departments.

The governor and the state education department clearly have a responsibility when it comes to the education of Iowa’s children, and that means they have a role in policy. But this role should be carried out in cooperation with local school boards, teachers, parents and administrators. There shouldn’t be any last-minute surprises.

Through this pandemic, Gov. Reynolds has often said she trusts Iowans to do the right thing. But she clearly doesn’t trust local school districts on this question. Instead, she has taken it upon herself to make the call — for all of them.

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