More than COVID-19 worries stand in the way of Des Moines schools resuming in-person classes

Sarah Kay LeBlanc
Des Moines Register

The Des Moines Public School District this week lost its bid for a court injunction to legally continue providing online-only learning. So, days later, why hasn't it opened its school doors to in-person instruction? 

Leaders of the state's largest school district say they're stymied by more than reluctance and concerns about spreading COVID-19.

In a meeting of the school board on Thursday, they said several obstacles would need to be overcome before in-person classes can resume. 

Among the foremost, they said, is staffing: Teachers are threatening to resign if forced to return to schools. The district also has an ongoing shortage of substitute teachers, and bus drivers are leaving faster than they can be replaced, leaders said. 

Still, if it has to, they said, the district can quickly come up with a hybrid learning model for kindergarten through eighth-grade students, with some modifications to an existing plan. The problem is devising one that works for high schools, which are more crowded.

For now, the district is proceeding with online-only instruction, defying a directive by Gov. Kim Reynolds that schools provide at least half their instruction in person.

Reynolds says that mandate is based on state law, and two judges so far have ruled in her favor. The district also is proceeding with its lawsuit, which seeks to affirm that local districts in Iowa, not the governor, have the authority to decide health and safety matters.

Here is a look at the challenges the district faces as the board plans a Tuesday vote on whether to continue online-only instruction for at least the next six weeks.


Superintendent Thomas Ahart said the biggest issue in transitioning to a hybrid instruction model would be transportation. With a bus driver shortage in Iowa, Ahart said, the district may have to resort to staggering start and end times at elementary schools to free up more buses. 

"During this pandemic, we have bus drivers who are afraid for their health and for their life," he said. "We’re losing drivers faster than we can train and hire new drivers."

The district also relies on the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority to transport students. Ahart said DART has social distancing measures in place on its buses that reduce the number of people the buses can carry. With those measures, DART may not have the capacity to transport all the students who usually use its services.


If the district returns to in-person learning, schools could find themselves short-staffed.

Josh Brown, president of the Des Moines Education Association, said the union has heard from 10 to 15 teachers who have inquired about how to resign instead of returning to in-person teaching. Resigning would violate their teaching contracts and could make it harder for them to find another teaching job. 

Teachers that do return may not have backup if they are sick or need to take a day off. Ahart said the district is constantly facing a shortage of substitute teachers. 

"There’s always a substitute shortage in the metro area," he said. "We have taken some proactive steps to secure some long-term subs, but if there’s a breakout in a building or a grade level, we’ll quickly run into a dilemma in that regard."


Even with the number of students in classrooms reduced under a hybrid model — which would use staggered scheduling to have different groups of students attend classes on different days — space would be an issue, said Phil Roeder, director of communications for the district.

To maintain social distance for students, especially during passing periods in high school, the district would require more room. Ahart said it would have to rent additional space. 


Every month, Ahart said, the district already is spending an additional $53,000 on utilities as it increases air circulation for the handful of people still working in school buildings.

But there is also a potentially far greater cost for defying the governor and continuing primarily online instruction. Though it's not entirely clear whether Reynolds will follow through, she has warned she will decline to count the days of online instruction toward the legal requirement that the district provide at least 180 days, or 1,080 hours, of instruction annually.

Board attorney Miriam Van Heukelem said operating costs for the district over a single day are around $1.5 million. Should the board decide Tuesday to continue online-only learning for six weeks — and later be required to make up those days — the bill, in theory, could amount to a staggering $45 million.

The district also is spending additional money on technology for students to help them work remotely, and to provide internet connections for those who lack them.

"We want quality, and we want safety. We can do both of those things, but we can’t do both of those things at the level I expect and be in compliance with where the governor would have us go," Ahart said Thursday night.

Sarah LeBlanc covers trending news for the Register. Reach her at 515-284-8161 or

Your subscription makes work like this possible. Join today at