Letter to the Editor

Returning to school

Thursday, July 23, 2020

In May parents, grandparents and caregivers were stressed out. We joked about teachers being underpaid and most of us coasted into the final days of crisis schooling holding on by a thread. We had a newfound respect for our educators and finally agreed upon how deeply underappreciated they are. We called them heroes and laughingly promised to stand up for pay increases and whatever else they wanted because they — were — worth — it.

Now suddenly here we are approaching August with no obvious end in sight for the coronavirus. Regardless of how or why you believe we got here, we are here and we are facing some big decisions.

On June 25 the Iowa Department of Education released their Reopening Guidance for Schools. In short, the guidelines called for additional hand washing, additional signage regarding hand washing, and a recommendation of no masks. There was an additional warning to districts choosing to implement any further restrictions (such as requiring masks or choosing to hold classes online) to seek legal representation before doing so. There was no clear, concise, universal guideline that would ensure the protection of our students, staff and faculty. There was no mention of sick leave or those with compromised health. There were no concrete answers that would help support our schools. Just a few suggestions to wash hands and a thinly veiled threat at legal recourse.

After the state essentially threw the burden to those at the local level, those districts continued to work on their Return To Learn Plans. Two of the largest districts in Iowa, Des Moines and Iowa City, both released decisions to start the school year online, setting what was sure to be a safe precedent for smaller districts to follow with more confidence. However, three days later, Governor Reynolds released her proclamation stating that Iowa schools must have at least 50% of their learning in-person.

The biggest problem with this mandate is that there is no longer any protection for the teachers. While I can choose to keep my kids home if I can afford it, teachers are still forced to be in the classrooms. Further, in her proclamation Governor Reynolds called for the lowering of requirements for substitute teachers so that more people are eligible to step in, and can do so for long term. Why would she do that? Because she is fully aware that schools are going to have outbreaks, and teachers will be dropping like flies. Despite that, she wants to have replacements at the ready to step in and keep the machine running.

At what point did we go from, “our teachers are our heroes,” to, “let’s stockpile substitutes for when our teachers start getting sick?”

Governor Reynolds has repeatedly echoed the president’s calls to get people back to work and keep the economy running. Opening our schools prematurely is just another step in that direction and if something doesn’t change, teachers will die, and students may as well.

Teachers in Iowa do not have the right to strike. If they do, they face a fine of $500 per day, termination of employment, and possible jail time. What does this all mean to you? I am asking you to go back to how you felt in May when we were all united in our love for our teachers. Remember how warm and fuzzy you felt about them and the lengths you would’ve gone to in order to show your appreciation. They need us right now. Some are currently writing obituaries and sending them to Governor Reynolds. Some are participating in a Drive for Lives event in Des Moines. Some are privately rewriting their wills, and some are just waiting to find out how valued they really are in our state.

Please continue to participate in the conversation. Contact the governor. Write your school board. Fulfill all those promises we made to them in May by listening to them and doing what you can to protect them.

— Amanda Melita-Green Johnson, Spencer