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Des Moines Public Schools sues state over 'Return to Learn' guidance

A lawsuit from DMPS accuses the state of prioritizing the return to physical classrooms over student safety.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa's largest school district has sued the state over its "Return to Learn" guidelines and online learning waivers amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Des Moines Public Schools filed the petition Tuesday in Polk County Court, alleging that positivity threshold requirements for districts to move 100% virtual education are too high and not in line with national guidance.

"At its core, this is a case about local control," the lawsuit filed against Gov. Kim Reynolds, the Iowa Department of Education and other state officials, reads. "It involves critical questions of public health and safety and the authority held by duly elected local school boards to make decisions in the best interest of their school districts, their employees, and the children in their care."

Under Iowa law, a county must have a 15% positivity rate on average for 14 days, plus 10% absenteeism in a school, before a district can apply to temporarily move classes online. 

In a corresponding brief in support of the motion, DMPS cites a 5% positivity threshold for reopening schools from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and says data does not back up the Iowa Department of Education or Iowa Department of Public Health's claims using a higher number.

"While Respondents will present an alternative standard, there is not a scintilla of credible evidence supporting a threshold of 15-20% positivity rate as a safe or reasonable metric for schools reopening."

DMPS, along with districts like Ames and Iowa City, have had their waiver applications for remote learning denied.

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The lawsuit also accuses the state of prioritizing the return to physical classrooms over student safety.

"After several meetings and discussions, Respondents made it clear that DMPS would need to provide at least 50% of their instruction in person, even if it meant abandoning social distancing altogether."

The district has asked the denial of their waiver to be overturned, and that the court strike down July 30 and Aug. 14 guidance on "Return to Learn" that DMPS labels "arbitrary, capricious, and inherently unreasonable."

"Gov. Reynolds is disappointed that the Des Moines Public School System is suing the State rather than working cooperatively to develop a return to learn plan that complies with the law and meets the educational and health needs of Iowa's children," Pat Garrett, a spokesman for the governor's office, said in a statement to Local 5. "Our Return to Learn plan emphasizes in-person learning, flexibility for school districts, and also parental choice. The State will continue assisting school districts in safely returning teachers and students to the classroom.”

Superintendent Dr. Thomas Ahart issued the following statement after the lawsuit was filed: 

Since work on our Return to Learn plan began several months ago, Des Moines Public Schools has followed the rules and procedures put in place by the State of Iowa to begin the 2020-21 school year, and on July 1 submitted our plan to do so.

As the COVID-19 situation in Iowa continued to worsen, and while the State routinely changed the rules for return to learn, DMPS altered our plan in order to safely start the school year through primarily virtual learning. We sought every opportunity to cooperate and collaborate but, after exhausting those avenues, DMPS was left with little choice but to pursue legal action for an injunction to set aside the State rejection of our virtual learning plan and to review the State’s authority.

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. Iowa law clearly vests duly-elected local school boards with broad authority to make decisions of educational policy, and Senate File 2310 gives school districts the ability to determine the nature, location, and medium of instruction during the current COVID-19 global pandemic. This includes, where necessary due to local conditions, the ability to begin the school year in a primarily remote environment.

DMPS disagrees with the Governor’s interpretation of Iowa law and is pursuing a legal challenge to the actions of the Governor and the state agencies acting at her behest. We are encouraged that other states are also addressing this important issue, such as a ruling yesterday in Florida where a judge granted an injunction preventing the state’s governor from forcing schools to reopen or else lose state funding. We are optimistic that the Polk County District Court will allow DMPS to continue to act in the best interest of our students, staff, and greater school community.

Moving forward, of course, the timing is now up to the Court. In the interim, DMPS will continue to implement our plan to begin the school year with primarily virtual learning as well as allowing high school sports and extracurricular activities to continue to practice and compete.

READ: Petition for Judician Review (Polk County)

READ: Brief in Support of Motion for Temporary Injunction

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