Schools to remain closed for rest of school year, disappointment hits hard in Storm Lake

Friday, April 17, 2020
Pilot-Tribune photo from Storm Lake graduation 2019

High school seniors statewide likely won't be attending a spring formal, competing in spring sports or even walking across a stage to "Pomp and Circumstance" this year. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said she plans to keep Iowa's schools closed for the remainder of the school year in light of the novel coronavirus.

"Believe me, I would like nothing more than to stand before you today and announce Iowa will be open for school in May," Reynolds said. "But, as we look at what the data is telling us now, I can't tell you with certainty based on the data the Department of Public Health is providing to the office, that early May will be the right time for students, teachers and staff to gather in their classrooms."

The governor went on to say the decision, like many others recently, was difficult, but she said the viral infection has yet to peak in Iowa. She said the decision was meant to give school districts time to prepare, and she will likely make a formal order at the end of the month — when the current closure is set to expire. The expected closure includes the cancelation of spring sports programs, and the state plans to offer more information on summer sports by June 1.

The reality hit hard for the Storm Lake School District. “I know that this decision has caused a great deal of concern and disappointment for our students, staff, and families. The pandemic arrived quickly, and when we first were directed to close our school buildings in March, we did not realize it would be the last time we would see our students in person this school year,” Superintendent Stacey Cole said following the governor’s announcement.

“We share in your disappointment,” she added in a message to families.

“This announcement will continue to affect all Storm Lake Community School District programming, including before- and after-school activities, all athletic and extracurricular practices and competitions, and all weekend events. It is our hope that we will be able to reschedule prom and graduation for later this summer, but we do not yet know how these events will look,” Superintendent Cole said.

The district will continue its virtual learning effort through Friday, May 22, the scheduled last day of classes. “We encourage all families to keep their students engaged in these activities to ensure learning continues to take place through the end of the school year,” Cole said.

She thanked the public for its “patience, understanding, and flexibility” during an unprecedented time. “We will get through this together. Please continue to stay safe, practice social distancing, and remain at home as much as possible,” she said.

The governor on March 15 first recommended all schools close through the end of that month. On April 2, she extended the closure to April 30 — promising educators guidance two weeks ahead of the order's expiration.

Many school districts have moved to online models, offering "continuous learning opportunities" which are optional curriculum for students while they are away from the classroom. Public schools may require online learning but must provide certain resources in order to do so. Ann Lebo, director of the Iowa Department of Education, said hundreds of school districts adapted to the change in a short time frame following the March closures.

"Closing schools through the end of the year was not an easy decision," Lebo said. "We do know the challenges this brings, but we also know this is necessary to ensure the health and safety of those we serve."

She said school districts will need to prepare a plan for eventually returning to in-person education — termed "Return to Learn" plans. Districts must submit their plans to the state by July 1, and Lebo said the state will respond with its recommendations. The director said district plans can include options like summer school, educational enrichment activities or other ideas which will compensate for the academic disruption caused by COVID-19 health precautions. Reynolds will also be waiving the requirement that schools start no earlier than Aug. 23. She hopes the decision will allow school districts and nonpublic schools to make local decisions about the length of their 2020-2021 academic year. The governor said districts could potentially begin class up to three weeks early in order to start remedial classes if necessary.

Decisions on whether students will be required to repeat grade levels will be up to individual districts, according to Lebo. She noted each of Iowa's 327 public schools — and179 private schools — are facing different challenges. Lebo also said the department is aware of other academic challenges, adding some students have recently taken jobs to help support their families as businesses across the state have cut hours and temporarily closed their doors.

Reynolds said she expects a phased approach to allowing businesses to reopen. The governor said two laboratories are currently ready to begin antibody testing related to the virus, which she said will help guide the state in its economic approach to the current crisis. She said testing for the antibodies will likely begin after the state's testing capacity is increased — a request she said has already been made by the state.

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