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School receives waiver to go to full remote learning

By James Grob,

The Charles City School District received an official waiver Monday from the Iowa Department of Education to go to full remote learning whenever it chooses, if necessary.

The waiver is good for two weeks of full-time remote learning, and the district can adjust the start date as needed. As of Monday, the district stated that the decision is “day-to-day.”

“We are doing our best to keep our school open, and are not advocating or wanting to go to full remote learning,” said Charles City Superintendent Mike Fisher. “We know that in-person learning is best, but we have to be able to do it safely, but I feel like we have a rising flood of COVID, and we’re running out of sandbags.”

Fisher has said he hopes to remain in hybrid learning until at least Thanksgiving, if possible. He said the district hopes to use this week to prepare students and teachers for the possibility of going to remote learning after Thanksgiving.

“We are not optimistic that it will be plausible to have our schools open after Thanksgiving,” he said.

At a special meeting last Friday, the Board of Education approved submitting the waiver request, to only be used if the matrix conditions are met or the district no longer has adequate staff to safely operate.

“There are consequences for the choices we make, and if we continue to operate the way we’re operating, I will not be able to keep this school district open,” Fisher said at the meeting, imploring the community for the third time in a week to follow mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines.

“If we can get these numbers down, we can stay open — but as it is, we’re running out of people. We need community help,” he said.

“If you want our kids to be in school, you’re going to have to make personal sacrifices,” Fisher said. “Wear a mask, social distance, limit your gatherings. I know it’s a hard thing, but we have to do it, or things like closing our schools will happen.”

Fisher said that the Iowa Department of Education encouraged Charles City to put in the waiver request, even if the district doesn’t use it immediately, so the school can use it when it is needed. The two weeks the waiver is good for do not start until the district begins to implement its remote learning plan.

The waiver allows for a full pivot, if needed, without any additional 48 hour delays. It also allows the district to forgive the last two days of missed school for the district. The waiver dates can also be amended by the state, if requested by the district.

At a special meeting on Nov. 5, the board approved transitioning grades 7-12 to hybrid learning through Thanksgiving break due to COVID positivity rates in Floyd County. Since that time, COVID cases have skyrocketed in Floyd County. Fisher outlined the school district’s struggles at the meeting on Friday.

He said the week started off when the district learned that Darla Arends, a Charles City High School special education teacher for 25 years, died last weekend from COVID-19 complications at the age of 58 .

“Our hearts were just broken,” Fisher said of Arends.

The average positivity rate for Floyd County has been near or above 20 percent for the past three weeks. Floyd County’s 14-day rolling average positivity rate was 23.7% on Monday, and there were 11 total positive COVID-19 cases in the district, Fisher said.

Last week, absence rates for students ranged between 4% and 7% and trended toward 10%. The staff absentee rate was approaching 12% due to COVID-19. Three classrooms at Washington Elementary school were quarantined due to exposure last week, and staff members at the middle school and high school went to the elementary schools to fill in for absent teaching staff.

On Wednesday last week, a secondary campus food service employee tested positive for COVID-19, and the district dismissed school at the high school and middle school as a cautionary measure. Those students were given a “snow day” on Thursday and Friday, although teachers were still required to come to school.

If the district does go to 100% online learning, sports and other extra-curricular activities would not be permitted during that time. However, should the district choose to go to an adjusted hybrid learning plan, where students are in school between 10% and 50% of the time, extra-curricular activities and events would be allowed.

In related news, by a 7-0 vote, the leadership of the Northeast Iowa Conference is now requiring fans to wear a face covering at indoor sporting events. This would apply to all Charles City events. Face coverings will need to be worn as fans enter the building, and remain on while indoors. The NEIC will enforce this procedure during basketball, wrestling, and bowling season.

The mask mandate applies to all fans of indoor high school and middle school contests in conference and non-conference match-ups. All who enter the event must wear a face covering that covers the nose and mouth, to be worn the entire time that person is in the building. Fans who do not wear a face covering may be asked to leave.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced new coronavirus mitigation efforts Monday to last through Dec. 10. Among those, spectators at games or events are limited to two per student and all are required to wear a mask.