How a once-noncontroversial new law became the center of Iowa's polarizing return-to-school plans

Ian Richardson
Des Moines Register

It was June 13, and Iowa lawmakers were buckling down for a late night of tense debate.

The Senate and House were working through their final list of bills — the end of a 10-day sprint to finish their legislative duties after the spreading coronavirus interrupted the session for 2 two-and-a-half months. The normally bustling halls of the Capitol were mostly quiet; safety precautions kept many of the lobbyists and groups who usually attend proceedings watching from home.

Controversial bills up for consideration included new voter ID requirements, limits on the Iowa secretary of state’s power to send out absentee ballot request forms and the last-minute addition of a 24-hour abortion waiting period. But several other bills kept relatively low profiles. That included Senate File 2310, a bill involving online education that laid out guidelines for schools offering remote learning in response to the pandemic. The bill passed both chambers unanimously.

Both Republicans and Democrats interviewed by the Des Moines Register in the past week say their intention was flexibility for school districts in addressing the unpredictable impacts of COVID-19. Then Gov. Kim Reynolds used the law as her basis for requiring schools to provide at least 50% in-person learning for core instruction — and the bill transformed into a lightning rod for controversy.

But during floor debate on the afternoon and evening of June 13, Democrats and Republicans alike had applauded how the bill would lay the groundwork for schools to reopen in the fall.

“This bill allows districts to make decisions that make the most sense for their students,” said Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, from the floor of the Senate.

“Overall, I think the bill is quite good,” said Rep. Monica Kurth, D-Davenport, before the bill passed the House.

Rep. Monica Kurth, D-Davenport

Reynolds signed the bill into law just over two weeks later, on June 29, without comment.

Then on July 17, Reynolds surprised several lawmakers and Iowa educators when she announced the 50% in-person instruction requirement, followed by a July 30 announcement that counties would need to exceed a 15% positive coronavirus test rate and 10% absenteeism for area schools to request permission to transition to primarily online instruction. At the same time, coronavirus cases surged in parts of the state.

As educators, school boards, legislators and attorneys have gone back to scrutinize the law's text, at times disputing her interpretation, Reynolds has repeatedly pointed to the law as a defense of her plans, saying she is following what it says.  

“I want to be very clear: Schools that choose not to return to school for at least 50% in-person instruction are not defying me. They’re defying the law,” Reynolds said during her Tuesday news conference.

While Republicans and Democrats may have agreed on the law when they passed it, key Democrats told the Des Moines Register they had a far different idea of its intention at the time of the vote.

“We did not expect that it would be read the way it is,” Kurth, a retired teacher who had been a part of the bill's initial subcommittee, told the Des Moines Register on Thursday.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton

But Republicans have stood by the governor’s decision, saying Reynolds' actions fulfill the intention of the law, which was clear when it passed.

"Senate File 2310 says primarily in-person instruction is the presumed method of instruction. That's not ambiguous," Sinclair, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, told the Des Moines Register Friday. "If there's a Democrat saying that that wasn't their intent, there are two possibilities: They either didn't bother to read it, or they weren't able to understand plain language."

Lawmakers differ on understanding of 'flexibility'

Weeks before the coronavirus appeared in Iowa, lawmakers began discussing a one-page bill that would have invested $500,000 in online education, with the requirement that coursework offerings would include online Chinese language classes for high school students. 

The bill soon developed into a larger piece of legislation concerning online coursework offered at Iowa schools. It first passed the Iowa Senate on Feb. 27, 12 days before Iowa reported its first three coronavirus cases and just over two weeks before Reynolds recommended all schools close to slow the virus' spread. 

When lawmakers returned in June from a two-and-a-half-month break due to the virus, the bill became the logical vehicle for adding guidelines about online learning during the coronavirus, said Rep. Tom Moore, R-Griswold, the bill’s floor manager in the House. 

Moore said Republicans worked with several groups, including the Iowa Association of School Boards, Rural School Advocates of Iowa, Urban Education Network of Iowa and the Iowa Department of Education, to craft an amendment to the bill that would provide more clarity for school districts preparing to reopen in the fall.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds holds a "Return to Learn" news conference on the reopening of public schools on July 30, 2020, at the Iowa Capitol.

An amendment introduced by Moore on June 10 said school districts or accredited nonpublic schools could provide instruction “primarily over the internet” if the instruction followed a district’s return-to-learn plan submitted to the Iowa Department of Education in response to a public health disaster emergency issued by the governor related to COVID-19. (The language became "primarily through continuous remote-learning opportunities" in the final bill.)

Schools had been working on crafting return-to-learn plans to submit to the state on July 1. The plans were required to address how schools would provide in-person classes as well as virtual learning and a combination of the two approaches.  

Moore said a main focus of the bill was providing "flexibility," opening the door for schools to adjust their plans and for parents to opt their children into online programs.

Rep. Tom Moore, R-Griswold

The law allows parents to open-enroll their children in an online public school outside of their own district if the child or people living at the residence has a health condition that heightens risk to the virus. The legislation also includes a handful of provisions that give school districts flexibility in using professional development time for instruction and in what endorsements are required for teachers. 

The law does not waive the minimum school day requirements or statewide assessments. 

When the bill returned to the Senate, Sinclair presented an amendment that, among other changes, specified that schools must provide "primarily" in-person instruction unless the governor issues a public health emergency declaration “explicitly addressing school closures.” The amendment also specified that “in-person instruction is the presumed method of instruction.”

The Iowa Department of Education has since interpreted "primarily" as at least 50% of core instruction. That metric is not part of the bill, but Sinclair agrees that's the correct reading. 

Sinclair told the Register that she had wanted to give school districts and parents the opportunity to tailor their back-to-school plans to fit their districts' situations while also making it clear that the state was providing a standard that emphasized the importance of bringing children back to the classroom. 

"Even then, experts were concerned about the ramifications of kids not being present in school — how that was affecting their educational needs, their emotional needs and physical needs," she said.

The Senate passed the bill the afternoon of June 13, and the House passed it seven hours later. Debate on the floor was brief in both chambers. 

Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, who had been on the original Senate subcommittee for the bill at the beginning of the session, said from the floor that the bill “will be an important part of going back to school in the fall.”

Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville

Wahls told the Register Thursday that, at the time, the bill was passed on the assumption that Republicans' promise of "flexibility" meant school districts would be able to make their own determination about when to switch between in-person and online courses. 

“Everybody kind of had the same understanding of what we were doing, which was giving school districts more flexibility to have those remote learning options — not what is now being asserted, which is literally the exact opposite of that,” Wahls said. 

But Moore said he didn’t believe the intention in his or Sinclair’s amendments was ever to leave the ultimate decision to the schools. Since the state has been tracking COVID-19 data in each part of Iowa, Moore said, he believes the state is best positioned to make that determination. 

“This was legislatively how we felt the COVID portion of it needed to be controlled,” he said. “That was in the hands of the governor, who was running the show during the emergency proclamation.” 

"If schools move to primarily remote learning without approval, according again to the law, those days do not count toward instructional time," Gov. Kim Reynolds said Aug. 4.

'We just didn't have a lot of time'

No lobbyists registered against the bill when it passed, but some of the lobbyists involved in discussions as the bill formed dispute the current interpretation by the governor and Republicans. 

Margaret Buckton, legislative analyst for the Urban Education Network of Iowa, a group that had initially registered undecided on the bill, said that since lawmakers were some of the only people present at the Capitol due to coronavirus precautions, it “created this perfect storm for people to think the bill said something.”

“We just didn't have a lot of time to sit down and say, 'Well, what exactly does that word mean and do we have to be more specific about that,'” she said. “If it had specifically said it required the department to approve a local board's decision, we would not have registered in favor of it.” 

Melissa Peterson, government relations specialist for the Iowa State Education Association, said the teachers union had registered "undecided" on the bill because it still had some issues with portions of the bill.

But she said she believes the overarching assumption at the Capitol when the law was being written was that the legislation was establishing a baseline of what schools needed to provide for students, not taking away from local schools the decision on when to switch online. The ISEA believes students should return to schools when possible, she said, but only once it's safe.

Even with the emergency proclamation left to the governor, Peterson said there was no reason at the time to believe then that Reynolds would change her approach from her actions in the spring, which gave schools the option to close and offer virtual classes.  

"We had assumed the standards for the emergency proclamation would be similar to those that were executed in March," she said. 

Reynolds has responded to questions about the change in standards by saying she believes the state knows more about the virus now than it initially did in March and has the hospital capacity and increased testing to handle the virus effectively.  

At Des Moines Public Schools, the state's largest school district, the district’s plan on how to approach fall classes was “all but complete” when the bill became law, spokesperson Phil Roeder said. On July 1, district leaders announced plans to allow students to take classes either 100% online or enroll in a hybrid option that would have them in class one or two days per week.  

Even after the bill was signed, it was 17 days before Reynolds announced that she was issuing a proclamation requiring schools to prepare for 50% in-person instruction.

“It’s inexplicable why the state waited nearly three weeks to give their interpretation of the legislation, which not only caught school leaders by surprise, but also many of the legislators who voted for the bill,” Roeder said.

Des Moines is among a handful of large Iowa school districts whose leadership has publicly discussed defying what they view as guidelines laid out by Reynolds' disaster proclamation — as opposed to state law. On Friday, Urbandale became the first district in the state to actively contradict the rules as it continued to hold online-only classes at its year-round Rolling Green Elementary. The district had received a two-week waiver from the state that allowed it to begin the year online, but the state declined to renew it.

Reynolds has said schools violating her proclamation will not receive credit for instructional time, and administrators could face licensure discipline.

The state has been meeting with several of the districts about revising their return-to-learn plans to fit the state's guidance. The Iowa Department of Education has sat down to work specifically with Des Moines and other schools that have threatened to defy the criteria.

A partisan back and forth

As Democrats voiced concern about the governor's interpretation of the law, Republicans have stood up for Reynolds, saying she is following the intention behind the law. 

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said in a statement that Democrats “have played politics with Iowa’s children and the COVID response” and never appeared concerned when the bill passed about students’ return to primarily in-person learning.  

State Rep. Pat Grassley

“I am not sure if they failed to read the legislation that they were voting on or if they didn’t understand it at the time,” he said. “Either way is concerning.” 

Sinclair said she agrees that the governor is within the bounds of the law. Sinclair said she doesn't fully agree with the choice to use the positivity rate as a metric, partially because it can be skewed based on how many people are being tested, but she believes the governor has been working with experts to develop her guidelines. 

"While it may not have been the route I would have taken, it's not outside the scope of what Senate File 2310 says," she said.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, said he believes the governor is hiding behind the Legislature’s decision to justify her own guidelines.  

Sen. Herman Quirmbach

He said the bill did put the ball in Reynolds’ court by requiring her to issue a proclamation. But he said the bill did not mandate her to set 50% in-person instruction, or put in place her metrics for schools seeking a waiver.  

“It doesn’t say which way the proclamation should go. That was Kim Reynolds’ choice,” he said.  

Wahls said since the legislative session was shortened by the coronavirus, he’s not surprised there was a differing interpretation of the bill at the time. As the dispute continues, the interpretation could end up being decided by a judge, he said.  

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see this go to court to try to untangle,” he said.

The Register's Brianne Pfannenstiel contributed to this report.

Ian Richardson covers the Iowa Statehouse for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at, at 515-284-8254, or on Twitter at @DMRIanR.

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