It's up to local leaders: An Iowa perspective on reopening schools

It's up to local leaders: An Iowa perspective on reopening schools
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There are no more important — even painful — choices during the pandemic than reopening schools. Thoughtful direction from the top is sorely lacking. Fortunately, we can rely on local officials like Lisa Remy.

Remy is the Superintendent of Schools in West Des Moines, Iowa; she has been wrestling around the clock with the decision whether or not to reopen for months: “This job is always complex,” she told me; “this takes it to a new level."

With 9,000 students, West Des Moines is planning a hybrid system, in which parents can choose whether their kids go to classes in person, with strict mitigation rules, or — with permission — learn online.

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This is a sensibly flexible approach, reflecting the views of the community.

“There still is a lot of stress,” she notes, and uncertainty.

Despite the mindless rhetoric of Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosSpecial counsel investigating DeVos for potential Hatch Act violation: report NEA president says Azar and DeVos should resign over school reopening guidance The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - You might want to download TikTok now MOREschools must reopen or be penalized — or those few who want to shut everything down, there is no one size fits all for America's more than 13,000 school districts.

Schools in the hotbed of the virus, which shows no signs of abating, wisely are suspending in-person teaching. In many rural areas, much less affected, most online instruction won't be necessary.

Getting this right is critical. To continue to miss school, after losing months this spring, would be an educational and social disaster for most kids and families. To recklessly return is a prescription for new surges.

(It's different for higher education; social distancing is anathema to college students, so the focus should be online learning.)

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For elementary students, Dr. Remy acknowledges that online instruction will be challenging. Her staff and teachers are devising special ways to make it more engaging.

For those in-person classes there will be strict rules: face coverings at all times, social distancing, meals in classrooms or staggered shifts in a cafeteria. (Over a third of the students in this middle-class suburban community are eligible for the school lunch program.)

Special efforts will be made daily to clean — and re-clean — school buses, establish hand sanitizing and hand washing stations and — weather permitting — maximize use of outdoor facilities. “Every decision is in a very urgent category,” Remy sighs.

Even with West Des Moines' thoughtful process, problems abound.

The substitute teaching ranks, always thin, are a big concern. As of now, Remy says, only about half the substitute teachers are willing to come back this fall semester, which starts in five weeks.

The high school football team, the Valley High Tigers, a state power and pride of the community, is slated to kick off the season Aug. 28. That, all sports and activities like the choir, are yet to be settled.

As Arne DuncanArne Starkey DuncanThe Hill's 12:30 Report: White House, Dems debate coronavirus relief package For the sake of equity, reopen schools — digitally, with exceptions It's up to local leaders: An Iowa perspective on reopening schools MORE, the estimable former Education Secretary told me, “The question is not just whether to open, whether we stay open.” That's what Lisa Remy is working on: “We have to view the whole school experience differently.”

That's necessary in the current crisis. It also should be an opportunity to think ahead.

Being in Iowa — virtually — I turned to the sage of the Hawkeye state: Michael Gartner, a native, former leading editor and publisher, once head of the University Board of Regents, owner of the triple-A Iowa Cubs, and, when on leave from the state, was a top editor at the Wall Street Journal and President of NBC News.

He worries school closings have been a disaster for his four grandchildren; with the continuing challenges, he told me, the danger is “we are producing a generation of kids who will be one or two steps behind for years and years.”

If Gartner were king, he says an answer would be “year-round schools as soon as the virus is under control.” Americans go to school an average of 180 days, compared to between 200 and 245 in South Korea, Japan, China and Australia, with longer hours. This would, and should, be accompanied by a big increase in teachers’ pay.

‘King Michael’ knows this is a pipe dream. If you tried a longer school year in Iowa “all hell would come from powerful people at the State Fair and powerful people at Lake Okoboji and other summer resorts.” School budgets, which fund teachers’ pay, are based in part on property taxes which are unpopular to raise.

In a speech to the legislature a few decades ago, Gartner proposed to take all the money out of the State's economic development budget and put it into schools with a longer year and better compensation. There were few takers.

Recently the state gave Cargill, the wealthy agricultural company, $6 million to finance a new production line in its Eddyville plant that added 14 workers. That, Gartner calculates, comes to $428,571.42 each for those additional employees.

Lisa Remy and some of her peers could have made better use of that money.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.