Des Moines school district sues state over virus rules
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The Des Moines school district sued the state Tuesday, challenging a policy that forces districts to hold at least half of their educational programs in-person in classrooms unless their areas meet a high threshold of positive coronavirus cases.
The lawsuit by Iowa’s largest school district asks the court to reverse the state’s rejection of its plan to begin the school year with students at home and to prevent the state from forcing it to reopen schools “when it is unsafe to do so.”
The lawsuit also seeks a court judgment that invalidates Gov. Kim Reynolds’ July 17 proclamation requiring district to return unless they are in counties with especially high levels of coronavirus cases and meet other department of education guidelines.
The lawsuit names the governor, other state officials and the Board of Education, Education Department and Public Health Department.
Reynolds’ spokesman Pat Garrett said the governor is disappointed that the district would sue rather than work to develop a plan “that complies with the law and meets the educational and health needs of Iowa’s children.”
“Our Return to Learn plan emphasizes in-person learning, flexibility for school districts, and also parental choice,” he said.
The court filing comes as the Ames school district announced Tuesday it would take similar legal action. Last week, the Iowa State Education Association and the Iowa City school district sued, saying Reynolds’ requirements are dangerous for students and staff.
In the Des Moines district, which has over 5,000 employees and 32,500 students, the lawsuit states that more than 31% of the staff have underlying health conditions, 47% are over age 50 and 10% is over age 60. Those factors put them at higher risk of a severe, potentially fatal, cases of COVID-19.
Superintendent Thomas Ahart said in a statement that as the pandemic worsened in Iowa and the state kept changing is rules, the district changed its plans to primarily teach students from home.
He said the district tried to work with the state but its plan was rejected, leaving the district with little choice but to pursue legal action to set aside the state’s rejection of its plans.
“At its heart, the petition that DMPS filed today in Polk County District Court is about local control and who is best positioned to make decisions to promote the health and safety of our students and staff, their families and the broader community while pursuing our core mission: educating our students,” he said.
The order signed by the governor in July says districts where 15% or more of coronavirus tests are positive over the prior 14 days can request permission to move to online instruction for two weeks at a time.
Health experts say Reynolds’ 15% threshold is not based on science and is three times higher than the 5% the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization suggests is safe. The surgeon general has recommended a 10% limit.
An Iowa Department of Education spokeswoman said the department has denied requests from Urbandale, Iowa City, Ames and Des Moines to temporarily move to online learning.
The positivity rate in Polk County, where much of the Des Moines district is located, is at 8.7%. In Johnson County, where the Iowa City school district is located, the rate is 11.6%.
On Tuesday, state data shows seven school districts are in counties with rates higher than 15%.
One is Marion County, where the Knoxville school district is located.
Megan Day Suhr, a member of the city council in Knoxville, said it was irresponsible for area public schools to reopen this week given the widespread community transmission of the virus.
“It’s going to spread like wildfire,” said Suhr, whose two daughters opted to start in an online-only format on Monday. “We are not prepared.”
Marion County’s 14-day positivity rate now exceeds 15%, in part due to infections that have been linked to crowded events at the Knoxville Raceway earlier this month.
Raceway officials announced Monday they were suspending racing for the remainder of the season after several people tested positive after a recent race.
Several teachers and students have already been in quarantine since the start of in-person learning Aug. 20, with some missing the first day, Suhr said.
Suhr acknowledged that her criticism of reopening schools wasn’t widely shared in the town of 7,000.
“The whole community seems to be happy that school is back in session. I am an outlier here. Teachers are very upset with me for speaking out against reopening,” she said.
As schools reopen, the state reached its highest ever rate of positive cases over the past 14 days on Monday.
State data shows the individual positive 14-day rolling total at 7,689 cases on Monday, surpassing the previous high on July 19.
The state continues to post an overall positivity rate of 9.5%, which represents the percentage of those tested getting positive coronavirus results. The rate for Monday was 8.2%.
In the 24 hours ending Tuesday morning, there had been 492 new known cases.
Reynolds has resisted closing bars again in areas of rapid spread and has declined to require masks.
Associated Press writer Ryan J. Foley contributed to this story from Iowa City.