Judge orders Des Moines schools to stop online-only classes

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A judge has ruled Des Moines Public Schools may not conduct 100 percent online learning. Tuesday was the first day of school for DMPS.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Polk County Judge Jeffrey Farrell denied temporary injunctions Tuesday sought by the Des Moines Public School (DMPS) system that would have permitted the district to continue online-only learning in violation of state law.

Tuesday was the first day of school for the metro district. Similar appeals for injunctions from Iowa City schools and from the Ames district were also denied.

Both districts followed the lead of DMPS, which was seeking a waiver from the Iowa Department of Education to cease all on-campus teaching. The move was part of a larger lawsuit, which will continue.

The state established guidelines allowing districts to move to exclusive online teaching if a county recorded a 15% COVID-19 positive testing rate for a 14-day period. This was also to be paired with at least a 10% COVID-related absentee rate in a district.

The DMPS argued the Centers for Disease Control suggested a 14-day county positivity rate of 5%.

In his order, Farrell said local jurisdictions were subject to state law in this instance.

“DMPS makes excellent policy points in support of its arguments for local control,” Farrell said, “but state law trumps local control in this area of education. School districts are a creation of state law and have no rights beyond those given by the legislature.”

The ruling has some teeth because the Iowa Department of Education issued a memorandum to schools saying those holding online-only classes without a waiver to do so might find those days of instruction not counted toward the total of hours mandated by state law.

DMPS Superintendent Dr. Tom Ahart issued a lengthy statement in reply to Farrell’s order. He noted the district school board would meet in emergency session Wednesday evening to consider their next possible legal steps. Part of his statement noted the district disagreed with Farrell’s decision.

“We are disappointed in today’s ruling denying our request for a temporary injunction to allow DMPS to begin the year online,” Ahart said. “The school board proceeded with online learning only after serious consideration of all options due to the alarming rise of COVID-19 in our community. Local control has long been at the heart of school operations in our state. In these unprecedented times we need more flexibility, not less, and we believe that is what the legislature intended to provide us.”

Ahart said classroom instruction would continue online for most DMPS students in spite of Farrell’s order. He said credit earned through virtual learning does count for individual students, and school work completed online will be applied toward grades and attendance.

“I realize this is a stressful time for our students and families as well as our 5,000 employees,” Ahart said. “The school board, my team and I are actively working to resolve this challenge in a manner that will continue to both provide education and opportunities for the children of Des Moines and safety for all of us.”

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds also responded to the ruling to deny the injunction with a statement.

“The court’s decision today recognizes that we are correctly interpreting Iowa law,” Reynolds said, “and I remain committed to working with Des Moines Public Schools on their Return to Learn plan so that it meets the educational and health needs of Iowa’s children.”

The move to online-only learning effectively halted all sports and other extra curricular activities for DMPS as well as Iowa City and Ames schools. The Iowa High School Athletic Association and Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union have agreed with the Iowa Department of Education, declaring districts enforcing online-only instruction may not compete in sports.

On Monday a large group of high school athletes — chiefly seniors — from the five DMPS high schools marched from Roosevelt High to Terrace Hill to encourage Reynolds to allow sports to continue. They were joined by seniors from Ames, as well as coaches, parents and other supporters, with the crowd estimated at over 500.

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