Des Moines Public Schools again seeks to take learning online as coronavirus surges

Sarah Kay LeBlanc
Des Moines Register

Citing the high rate of coronavirus spread in Polk County, Des Moines schools Superintendent Thomas Ahart has asked the state for permission to transition all grades to online-only learning starting Nov. 16.

Other Des Moines-area districts are considering following suit. Since Friday, at least seven other Des Moines metro districts have shifted some classes online or had scheduled meetings Monday night to discuss changes to in-person learning models.

The potential shifts to fully online instruction come as coronavirus infections surge in Iowa. As of Monday morning, 82 counties were at or above 15% positivity rate for coronavirus tests in the past 14 days, one of the state's benchmarks to consider approving a shift to in-person schooling.

Since Nov. 2, the Iowa Department of Education has granted waivers to 10 Iowa schools or districts to temporarily move to 100% remote learning. Five of the applications were granted Friday.

This is the second push Des Moines has made to secure state permission for online-only learning this school year due to the pandemic. The state's Department of Education denied the earlier request and, in September, a judge denied the district's request for a court injunction to stop the state from enforcing its in-person instruction mandate.  

The Des Moines School Board voted Sunday night to allow Ahart to ask the state for the waiver allowing online-only instruction. Ahart said he would file the waiver request Sunday evening. The board expected to hear a response from the Department of Education within 24 to 48 hours.

The motion passed 6-1, with board member Teree Caldwell-Johnson voting against. If the waiver is granted, all grade levels would move to fully online learning for at least two weeks starting Nov. 16. That means high school students, who are slated to begin in-person hybrid learning Tuesday, could attend classes in person for as little as four days before moving back online.

With his recommendation, Ahart said he was trying to "avoid having a disaster." Public health experts say COVID-19 cases could grow significantly through the week of Thanksgiving.

"What’s driving this recommendation isn’t a concern about a particular building, it’s looking at the steady increase over the last two weeks of positive cases in students and staff and a concurrent increase in students and staff being quarantined due to exposure and the rising conditions in the community," he said Sunday.

The district is reporting 5% absenteeism for staff, about 40% of which are due to isolation or quarantine, Ahart said. While 5% may seem low, staff absences related to COVID-19 are often two weeks long due to quarantine requirements. He said schools across the district are struggling to cover those absences with substitutes.

"We do not have enough subs to cover every teacher absence," Ahart said. "We’re sort of triaging using first building staff and then district staff to make sure that we have coverage for every class and every supervision area." 

The board will likely meet again if the waiver is granted to discuss applying for a second waiver if current COVID-19 conditions continue.

The state requires schools to hold at least 50% of their classes in person. Two factors that the state weighs heavily in deciding whether to allow a switch to online-only instruction are when the positivity rate in the district's county exceeds 15% and the students' absentee rate reaches 10%. 

A second motion by board member Kalyn Cody to indefinitely delay the start of in-person instruction for high school students and transition pre-K through eighth grade to online learning starting Nov. 16 even if the waiver is not granted failed to pass by a vote of 4-3.

Members Dwana Bradley, Caldwell-Johnson, Kimberly Martorano, and Kelli Soyer voted against, while Rob Barron, Kalyn Cody and Kyrstin Delagardelle voted for the motion.

Martorano brought up several concerns regarding virtual learning during the meeting. She said she was "taken aback" by data board members received Sunday that cited 55% of all high school students earning a D or an F in one or more classes, with 68% of male students and 69% of English-language learners in that category. 

"Student achievement is going to be weighed heavily in my decision this evening," she said.

Bradley also shared concerns about virtual learning, saying she had heard from a teacher that online class sizes ranged from 47 to 50 students.

The district started the school year with online-only instruction. The board voted in late September to adopt a hybrid model in an effort to be in compliance with state guidelines. For Des Moines' model, the district divided students into two groups. The first group attends school on Monday and Tuesday and the second group attends school on Thursday and Friday. The two groups alternate every other Wednesday.

Preschools students began the model on Oct. 12, followed by elementary schools on Oct. 19 and middle schools on Oct. 26.

About 58% of students are in the district's hybrid model, while about 38% are in an online-only model.

In early October, the board approved four metrics to consider when deciding whether to move classes online. Those metrics included:

  • The number of new COVID-19 cases in Polk County reaches more than 100 per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period;
  • The county's positivity rate exceeds 10% over a 14-day period; 
  • The DMPS student absentee rate exceeds 10%; 
  • And the DMPS staff absentee rate exceeds 10% or 5-9.9% for a sustained period longer than one week. 

Two of the district's metrics have already been reached. As of Monday afternoon, Polk County's COVID-19 positivity rate over the past 14 days was 17%. And according to the Polk County Health Department, the county is averaging 372 total cases per 100,000 residents over the last seven days.

Sarah LeBlanc covers the western suburbs for the Register. Reach her at 515-284-8161 or