Judges Deny Iowa School Districts’ Requests to Block Governor’s Classroom Time Order

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds speaks during a news conference on March 29 about and the state’s response to Covid-19. (Kelsey Kremer/The Des Moines Register via AP, Pool)

(CN) — An Iowa judge denied a bid by a statewide teachers’ union and a local school district to halt enforcement of Republican Governor Kim Reynolds’ order that public schoolchildren spend at least half their time in the classroom amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

School officials and many parents are worried about sending children, teachers and staff back to the classroom at a time when Iowa continues to see large numbers of new Covid-19 cases. Just a week ago, Iowa had the distinction of having the highest rate in the nation for Covid-19 cases per 100,000, according to the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Iowa has since dropped out of first place but it is still seeing rising numbers, especially in university communities.

Nonetheless, the governor has ordered that all public or state-accredited private schools provide at least 50% in-class instruction unless positive test results for the virus exceed a certain level within a district or a district receives a waiver from the state Department of Education.

District Judge Mary Chicchelly ruled Tuesday that the governor is on solid legal ground.

The judge Tuesday denied the Iowa State Education Association and Iowa City Community School District’s request for an emergency temporary injunction. The judge said the governor’s orders returning most Iowa students for in-classroom instruction at least half-time is within her authority under the Iowa Constitution and state law.

When the harms to the parties are balanced, she wrote, “the facts weigh against” a temporary injunction.

“While Covid-19 certainly presents the risk of harm to petitioners’ members, staff, and students, there also are risks to students that may result from school closures,” she wrote. “The risks are compelling and equal on both sides of this argument, and petitioners cannot show that the harms of which they complain outweigh those of the experiences that students might have if schools are permitted to shutdown indefinitely and without oversight from [the state].”

A second Iowa judge issued a similar decision Tuesday, denying a motion by the Des Moines Community School District’s request for a temporary injunction based on similar grounds.

Both the statewide teachers’ union and the Des Moines School District indicated Tuesday they are not giving up just yet.

“The ISEA is disappointed in the court’s decision. However, we know this is just an initial step in a longer process,” the association said in a statement. “We will continue to review our options and determine the best way to move forward. In the meantime, we will persist in our efforts to ensure our students, school employees and communities are safe. We are undeterred in this commitment.”

Des Moines Superintendent Thomas Ahart released a statement Tuesday saying the district will be weighing its next move. The school board will meet in closed session Wednesday to discuss the next steps, and in the meantime, instruction will continue online for most Des Moines students.

“We are disappointed in today’s ruling denying our request for a temporary injunction to allow DMPS to begin the year online,” Ahart said in the statement. “The School Board proceeded with online learning only after serious consideration of all options, due to the alarming rise of Covid-19 in our community. Local control has long been at the heart of school operations in our state. In these unprecedented times we need more flexibility, not less, and we believe that is what the legislature intended to provide us.”

Iowa schoolchildren had not been in classrooms since March after the pandemic hit, and all instruction moved online. Students have been returning to classrooms in recent weeks, either in person or virtually, with the arrival of the new school, Iowa school administrators were preparing plans, ranging from total virtual learning to partial classroom instruction.

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