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Iowa School Transitions Some to Online Model Amid COVID Spike

One district has requested permission from the Iowa Department of Education to transition its junior-senior high school to a 100 percent digital format for two weeks amid a spike in COVID-19 cases.

by Michaele Niehaus, The Hawk Eye / October 23, 2020

(TNS) — The West Burlington, Iowa, School District has requested permission from the Iowa Department of Education to transition its junior-senior high school to a 100% digital format for two weeks beginning Monday amid a spike in COVID-19 cases.

"We do not have a grade (in the junior-senior high school) that is below 10% in terms of student illness, and that would be a total of positive students, ill students and those students that are in quarantine that we know are now showing symptoms of illness," West Burlington School District Lisa Beames told the school board Thursday during a special meeting called to address the issue.

During the meeting, the board unanimously voted in favor of Beames' recommendation subject to the state's approval. Beames submitted an application to the state on Wednesday to transition sixth- through 12th-grades to online learning beginning Monday in an effort to expedite the process and prevent the transition from taking place in the middle of the school week. Beames expects to be notified of the state's decision by the end of the day Friday.

"I don't see where we have an option," board member Pam Dodds said. "I mean, you've got too many kids gone and what I've heard too is the staff is suffering. They don't have enough staff and some of the staff are using their planning periods to go out and cover classes."

As of Thursday, 143 junior high and high school students — 64 and 79 respectively — were absent from school due to illness and quarantine, according to the district's COVID-19 dashboard.

Of those students, 17 had tested positive for the virus; 37 were absent due to other illness; and 89 were absent due quarantining after having had close contact with someone who tested positive.

At least 20 quarantined students are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. The district has sent surveys to quarantined students asking them to report whether they have symptoms. About half of students had responded as of Thursday.

"Much of this has been traced to clusters of students participating in school activities as well as large group events outside of school," Beames told The Hawk Eye.

Beames informed the board that Des Moines County Public Health submitted data supporting the district's request to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Des Moines County's 14-day positivity rate, however, had not yet reached the state's 15% mark requirement to transition to online learning, though it was close, rising to 14.7% as of 7 p.m. Thursday as the case count climbed to 1,306.

Even if the state approves the district's request, West Burlington's Friday night football game still will be on, with precautions being taken to ensure players are not experiencing symptoms before playing.

"I think if we don't do something now, it's going to keep trickling on down the line to where we might not even have basketball," board member Bruce Thuleen said.

Thuleen asked if students still will be able to come to school on Friday — which now is set aside for teachers to meet with struggling students — should the state approve the district's application. Beames pointed out that Oct. 30 already is set aside as an in-service day, so students would only be missing out on one Friday.

She also advised that students limit their in-person social interactions outside of school while the rate of spread remains high.

"We hope that everybody also considers keeping very tight circles of interaction between the kids to help break the cycle and things like that," Beames said. "We'll have a lot of kids who should be coming out of quarantine at that time, but it's just a really fluid situation."

Should the state approve the district's application, the district may reapply to extend the virtual learning for another two weeks depending on the state of COVID-19 in its student population at that time.

West Burlington elementary students also have tested positive for the virus as well, but that school has not been hit nearly as hard as the junior and senior high school. The number of confirmed cases at the elementary level is less than six, so the exact number has not been made public due to recommendations issued by the Iowa Department of Education regarding COVID-19 reporting. As of Thursday, 23 elementary students were in quarantine due to having had close contact with an infected individual, while another 13 were absent due to other illness.

(c)2020 The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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