Perry School Board to act on COVID-19-related issues Monday

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Iowa has a statewide SARS-CoV-2 14-day positivity rate of 19.4%. Source: New York Times

The Perry Community School District Board of Directors will consider several COVID-19-related actions at its Monday night meeting, including declaring teachers essential workers, preparing for 100% onsite instruction in January and approving the October and November versions of the district’s Return to Learn plan.

Among the items on the crowded agenda is a resolution designating school faculty and staff as essential employees.

“The Governor has given schools the authority to designate school staff as essential,” said Perry Community School District Superintendent Clark Wicks, whose agenda recommends the board approve the resolution that “would allow quarantined staff to come back to work as long as they remain asymptomatic and follow the guidelines on the handout.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance followed by the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH), critical infrastructure workers “may be permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19, provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community.”

In an Aug. 6 press conference, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds declared teachers are essential workers. Reynolds said Iowa has followed CDC recommendations “all along for essential workforce determined by the federal guidelines, and our teachers absolutely fall into essential workforce.”

At the same conference, State Epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati said that “there are some federal allowances for individuals who have critical roles who have had an exposure but remain asymptomatic, that if there is a workforce shortage and if the individuals want to, we can do things to safely allow some of those critical workers to return to roles, but it includes things like monitoring of symptoms and temperature twice a day, using a face mask, maintaining distance and, of course, having a plan in case they were to become ill, so it’s all part of the critical infrastructure worker guidance that we’ve provided to critical workers in accordance with federal guidelines in a variety of settings.”

As of Monday morning, more than 10 million people in the U.S. have been infected with the coronavirus, and 43 states have an infection rate greater than 10%. Iowa has the third-highest number of new cases per 100,000 people among U.S. states, with a 19.4% positivity rate over the last 14 days, according to a New York Times database.

As of Monday, the Dallas County portion of the Perry Community School District had a 14-day positivity rate of 18.9%. The Greene County rate is 18.3%, and the Boone County rate is 13.5%.

U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, who represents Perry in Congress, called Monday for “real and direct action” to be taken in the face of a 50% surge in total cases in Iowa over the past month and the “deeply disturbing spike” in hospitalizations.

“It is clear that current tactics aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 in Iowa are not sufficient to stop this latest and most deadly surge of the virus,” Axne said. “Over the past month, the repeatedly shattered records of new COVID-19 cases, the positivity rates, hospitalizations and outbreaks in congregate living facilities have erased any ability for Iowans to think that this virus is under control in our state.”

Source: Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center
The Dallas County portion of the Perry Community School District has a 14-day positivity rate of 18.9% as of Monday, Nov. 9. The Greene County rate is 18.3%, and the Boone County rate is 13.5%. Source: Iowa Department of Public Health

Looking forward to 2021, the Perry School Board will also consider a resolution to “approve the planning of students to attend onsite teaching and learning starting second semester,” according to the meeting agenda.

“The district’s goal for this year was to have all students taking classes onsite,” Wicks said, noting that the school district started the 2020-2021 school year with 262 students receiving off-site or remote learning. The number of off-site learners has steadily dropped to its current level of 173 students.

Under the proposed resolution and in conformity with an Iowa law signed by Reynolds in June, the district would limit its provision of online instruction to students or families with verifiable medical conditions and to students in quarantine. All other students would be required to attend in-person classes.

“If students do not meet the criteria (in the Iowa law), the district is not required to provide them with remote learning,” Wicks said.

In order to prepare for onsite classes in the second semester, the district would notify parents or guardians of the plan to have students attend onsite and of the possibly revised dismissal time. A plan would also be developed for continuing online instruction for students in temporary quarantine and for students with verified medical conditions.

The Perry School Board will take up a personnel matter when it considers approving the district’s teacher handbook for 2020-2021. The meeting’s agenda indicates that “the proposed Teacher Handbook includes items that cannot go into the Master Contract,” but this description is disputed by the Perry Education Association (PEA), the union representing teachers in the PCSD.

According to a statement issued Nov. 5 by the PEA, “The agenda also states that the items in the handbook cannot go in the master contract. This is false. There currently is no existing teacher handbook that contains the items that used to be in the master contract.”

The Iowa Legislature greatly curtailed the collective bargaining rights of Iowa’s state and local public sector workers in 2016, and the PCSD responded by negotiating with the PEA a master contract for 2017-2019 that removed nine of the 17 articles in the previous master contract.

Many terms of employment found in the previous contract — hours and benefits, insurance, procedures for staff evaluations, reductions and transfers and some terms about salaries — were reclassified as “permissive or illegal/excluded” items, according to PCSD Superintendent Clarks Wicks, who told the union in 2019 that the school board was “willing to discuss treatment of these articles or portions of these articles outside of the collective bargaining agreement” and would consider transferring some articles to an “employee handbook” or similar location.

According to the PEA, no such handbook with the excluded permissive items was ever produced by the district.

“The board removed all permissive items from the master contract in the spring of 2019, and no handbook that included those permissives was ever created or approved for the 2019-2020 school year,” according to the PEA. “The permissive items can go in a master contract, but our board chose to remove them from that legally binding document.”

The current PEA contract was negotiated in 2019 and will expire June 30, 2022.

The Monday meeting begins at 6 p.m. in the Brady Library of the Perry High School. Guests are introduced at the beginning of the meeting and permitted to address the school board for three minutes. Visitors are encouraged to wear a face mask.

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