Open letter from Des Moines superintendent of schools

Dr. Thomas Ahart, superintendent of the Des Moines Public Schools, wrote the following open letter July 31 to people in the school district.

Editor’s note — Dr. Thomas Ahart, superintendent of the Des Moines Public Schools, wrote the following open letter July 31 to people in the school district.

Dear Friends,

As soon as Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS) transitioned to distance learning to finish last school year, we shifted our focus to how to safely begin 2020-2021. Like school districts across the state, we spent thousands of hours developing a plan — according to the guidelines issued by the state of Iowa — on how to resume school in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The development of this plan also reflected input from more than 80% of our families.

While everyone wants a day when we can resume school as we have for the past 100 years, that is simply an unsafe option. For DMPS, we prepared a plan — again, according to the guidelines issued by the state of Iowa — that provided our families with a choice between an all-virtual learning model and a hybrid model, which combines in-person and online learning. Our goal: educate our students while protecting the health and safety of our students, their families and our staff.

Over the past two weeks, the state of Iowa has released increased limitations on local decision making, after more than 75% of our families had already registered for the plan we introduced on July 1. The DMPS plan was designed to maximize both student and staff safety and academic learning.

Compliance with the recent changes in requirements will place students and staff at unacceptable risk given the COVID-19 conditions expected at the time school begins. Of particular concern are the guidelines issued just yesterday (July 30), stating that the transmission rate in a community must be more than 15-20% before a school can even ask for permission to change to online learning for a mere two weeks, a level triple that recommended by most public health experts.

The state’s approach over the past two weeks has created concern and confusion for parents and teachers alike. It ignores the complexities of everything that goes into how a school district operates, not only preparing for online learning but everything from transportation to meals to technology to staffing.

We recognize the significant challenges that the dramatic changes to daily schedules creates for our families, and we are working with multiple district partners to address childcare and other family needs. However, the very notion that a school can simply flip a switch to go back and forth between in-person and online learning ignores the reality of how schools operate, what is best for our students and families, and limits the ability of teachers to provide quality instruction.

Our reason for existence is to educate students, and that is exactly what DMPS will do in 2020-2021. Whether in person or online, our teachers live to support the success of their students. But I am not going to put our staff — or their students and families — in the position of getting sick for that purpose. We can return to learn in a way that is smart, safe and realistic.

Therefore, DMPS is working on the following changes to our Return to Learn plan:

  • Delay the start of the school year to shortly after Labor Day. Professional Development days currently scheduled throughout the year would be held prior to the start of classes so that the 2020-2021 school year ends as currently scheduled.
  • The 2020-2021 school year would begin fully virtual across all grade levels.
  • As soon as it is safe to do so, DMPS would transition to the hybrid learning model for elementary and middle school students who registered for that plan.
  • High school classes would most likely be held entirely online for the Fall semester, with the exception of some in-person classes at Central Campus.

As superintendent, I will continue to make every effort to work collaboratively with the Iowa Department of Education and the governor about our need to take this approach to responsibly further our students’ education. Finally, DMPS is prepared to take every step available to ensure a safe start to the school year for our 33,000 students, 5,000 employees, their families and the entire Des Moines community.

Dr. Thomas Ahart, Superintendent
Des Moines Public Schools


  1. MASSIVE kudos to you, sir, for putting your students and staff ahead of the state politics. I am a native Iowan now living in northern California. While most of California’s schools are doing as you have the DSM schools doing, virtual learning, I happen to live in an area that is deep red politically, and these folks are opening the schools for in-classroom learning in two weeks. My daughter will be a freshman, and we will be homeschooling her this year and next if need be. Again, sir, to you massive, MASSIVE kudos and props for having your priorities in the proper context. –Jim Dirks, Redding, CA

  2. I am so happy to see you stand up to the nonsense that Gov. Reynolds is doing. I read the DSM school district plan for reopening and thought it was a well laid out plan that would allow you to protect your students and staff. My children go to Ankeny schools, but I closely watched your decisions to see how a much larger district would handle these challenges. I thought your plans were excellent.
    The “one upping” the governor does every time a school district creates a plan has made her intentions clear. She has no regard for our children, teachers, administrators, etc. She is playing a political game with our lives and putting everyone at risk. Her latest guidelines make that crystal clear. I was completely shocked to see her go that far! She is dangerous to all Iowans. Again, I am so thankful for you, our educators and administrators. You had a tough job before the pandemic, and it’s much harder now. You all have not given up, instead you’ve shown care, genuine love and concern for your students and staff and reminded us all what makes educators so special. DSM Public School District and its families are blessed to have you. –Alison Evans, Ankeny resident

  3. So in this age of diversity and a rising awareness of white privilege, how is it in keeping with being a leader in urban education to allow only the Central Campus students access to the most effective and rich form of education–in person. DMPS has a great deal of soul searching to do as it pretends to be a leader in education, when in reality it is a mess. White privilege remains and undergrids all decisions with respect to funding and educating.

    • I totally agree with your position on institutional white privilege governing decisions in Des Moines, but I don’t think the Central Campus exception is about white privilege, it’s just that Central Campus has classes like welding that can’t be done online.

  4. Distance learning at the end of the year was a mailed workbook that arrived the final month of the school year and 30 minutes a week on a social web call with a teacher and four other students. If that passes for “learning,” I understand why DMPS hosts more dropout factories than any other school district in the state. If DMPS won’t educate our children, close them and give the money to parents to find education elsewhere. Literally, anything is better than Ahart’s “plan.”

  5. I have a hard time understanding how daycares are safe but not schools. I’m afraid DM is going to have a lot of latch key children and children not getting a good education at home. It is strange how these kids have been to Adventureland, swimming, playing in parks, playing three to six ball games every weekend and no outbreak in the kids. I guess the private schools will show how it works or doesn’t work. I’m sure you are also thinking about the teachers, and I can understand that. They should be essential now – just like doctors, nurses, their receptionist, police officers, firefighters, grocery store workers, gas/food service, – – well, you get the point.

  6. It is not easy to make this decision, but thank you for being brave enough to go to bat for the students, their families, and staff.

  7. I understand that school kids are taking a huge hit in their education and their mental health because of COVID-19, but feeling secure and being educated isn’t going to do them any good if they’re dead.


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