State approves Des Moines Public Schools request to move all classes online for two weeks
The Iowa Department of Education approved a Des Moines Public Schools request to move all grade levels online from Nov. 16-30, the district announced Tuesday.
All students will start virtual classes on Monday. That means Des Moines high schoolers, who transitioned from an online to a hybrid learning model on Tuesday, will attend classes in-person for as little as four days before moving back online.
Superintendent Thomas Ahart filed the application for a waiver Sunday night after getting school board approval. Ahart said that he was trying to "avoid having a disaster" as public health experts say COVID-19 cases could grow significantly through the week of Thanksgiving.
This was the second time the district attempted to secure state permission for online-only learning this school year due to the pandemic, but the first time the state agreed.
In August, the Department of Education denied the district's request to begin the school year virtually and, in September, a judge denied the district's request for a court injunction to stop the state from enforcing its 50% in-person instruction mandate.
Two factors that the state weighs heavily in deciding whether to allow a switch to online-only instruction are when the positivity rate in the district's county exceeds 15% and the students' absentee rate reaches 10%.
As of Tuesday morning, 90 of Iowacounties including Polk had a 14-day positivity rate above 15%.
Several other metro area districts have applied or plan to apply for the same type of waiver from the state early this week as COVID-19 rates, absenteeism and the number of students and staff in quarantine sharply increased starting in late October.
On Sunday, Ahart cited a "steady increase over the last two weeks of positive cases in students and staff and a concurrent increase in students and staff being quarantined due to exposure and the rising conditions in the community."
The district was reporting 5% absenteeism for staff, about 40% of which are due to isolation or quarantine, Ahart said. While 5% may seem low, quarantine requirements often mean that educator is sidelined for two weeks. He said schools across the district are struggling to cover those absences with substitutes.
Des Moines Public Schools is the state's largest school district with nearly 33,000 students and 5,000 employees. The district said on Twitter that it will update families and staff later Tuesday and throughout the week.
Shelby Fleig covers Des Moines city government for the Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-214-8933.