Teachers Union Sues Iowa Governor Over School Reopening Plan

This June 18, 2020, file photo shows Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updating the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, Pool)

(CN) — A statewide Iowa teachers union and a local school district filed suit against Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds Wednesday seeking to halt her order that public schoolchildren spend at least half of their time in the classroom beginning this fall amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit is the latest salvo in a battle between a growing number of Iowa school districts and the governor and the state Department of Education over returning to school in coming weeks. 

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. The state just passed 1,000 deaths and reported 580 new cases Wednesday.

Iowa schoolchildren have not been in classrooms since March after the pandemic hit, and all instruction moved online. With the new school year approaching, Iowa school administrators were preparing plans, ranging from total virtual learning to partial classroom instruction. 

But on July 17, the governor 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.

Nonetheless, a number of districts, including the state’s largest in Des Moines, have since announced they intend to open the school year with 100% virtual instruction. Some have indicated they are prepared to defy the governor if they are not granted waivers, prompting the governor to threaten to deny education credits for those schools or to take licensure action against school administrators.

“I want to be very clear, schools that choose not to return to school for at least 50% in-person instruction are not defying me, they are defying the law,” Reynolds said at an Aug. 4 press conference. 

In mandating 50% in-class teaching, the governor has cited legislation passed unanimously by the Iowa Legislature in June, which she signed into law, that requires instruction be “primarily” in the classroom. Some school administrators dispute the governor’s interpretation of the legislation.

The Iowa State Education Association took the issue to court in the lawsuit filed Wednesday along with the Iowa City School District as a plaintiff. The complaint argues that the governor’s edict on 50% in-class education violates the rights of Iowans under the Iowa Constitution and puts the basic rights of citizens to defend their health and lives in needless jeopardy.

The complaint also argues the governor exceeded her authority in issuing the mandate, which “unlawfully usurps” the authority of school districts, which the plaintiffs argue have “exclusive jurisdiction in all school matters” under Iowa law.

“As educators, we are responsible for safeguarding the health and safety of our students,” ISEA President Mike Beranek said in a statement released Wednesday. “When educators enter a school building, they are signaling that it is safe for students to enter as well. It is a tremendous responsibility and one we can no longer ensure given the current guidelines in place.”

The complaint states the governor’s order makes a difficult situation worse for Iowa educators. 

“By not allowing local school boards to determine quickly, and independently of the Department and the Iowa Department of Public Health, whether schools in their district should be closed and moved to remote learning,” the complaint states, “the delay in seeking, and perhaps being denied, permission . . . to effectuate such a closure will only exacerbate an already untenable situation in providing a safe education to Iowa students during the 2020-21 school year in all public school districts in Iowa.”

The plaintiffs seek an injunction that prevents the governor and the education department from enforcing the in-class mandate and taking punitive measures against schools that do not follow the governor’s order.

The lawsuit, filed in Johnson County District Court, names the governor, the state Department of Education, and department director Ann Lebo. The complaint was filed by ISEA attorney Gerald Hammond.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Courthouse News Wednesday.

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