“Normal” has been a frequently heard word in recent weeks as the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic begins to fade and lift. From public events to schools to businesses and more, many aspects of life feel more like they did in 2019 and earlier rather than what we have experienced since Spring 2020.
At the same time, new variants of the COVID-19 virus are starting to cause renewed concerns as cases increase, both in Iowa and around the world, especially among people who are not yet vaccinated.
Des Moines Public Schools is welcoming students back to the classroom while doing what we can to lessen the spread of COVID-19.
This article outlines those steps, and what school districts in Iowa can and cannot do in response to public health concerns.
Getting vaccinated is the single most important thing eligible students, staff and parents can do before the start of the school year. It is the most proven, surest way to protect yourself from the virus and put the pandemic further behind us. Since the COVID-19 vaccine started to become available for the education sector back in February and then available to people over 12 later in the Spring, DMPS has encouraged everyone and anyone who is eligible to get vaccinated. The school district has hosted several clinics for staff and students provided by local health care providers.
At this time the vaccine is available for people 12 and older, which essentially covers all middle and high school students. The eligibility age is expected to be lowered, but no date has yet been announced. However, all eligible members of a household being vaccinated improves the odds of our under-12 students from contracting and spreading the virus.
To schedule a vaccination, please visit www.immunizepolk.com.
All students, staff and visitors at DMPS must wear a face mask whenever they are inside a building, including spectators at indoor sporting events and athletes when they are not competing. (NOTE: face masks continue to be required on public transportation, including school buses, according to a federal order from the CDC.)
At this time, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status. Iowa’s law banning schools from following those CDC recommendations is now the subject of a federal restraining order, temporarily allowing districts to reimplement mask mandates to protect students and staff.
ONLINE LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES
Des Moines Public Schools has two options for families who want their children to learn online in the 2021-22 school year. First, DMPS has contracted with Edgenuity to offer online courses for elementary school students in grades K-5. This program is open to all DMPS elementary school students. For more information please click here.
DMPS also is home to Virtual Campus, an accredited online school and the first school of its kind in the state developed by Iowa educators. Originally an online high school, Virtual Campus expanded ahead of the 2021-22 school year to educate middle school students. Enrollment for Virtual Campus has closed for the year.
DMPS will continue measures to minimize the spread of the virus within our buildings. This includes steps such as:
- continuing greater air circulation;
- maintaining hand sanitizing stations;
- enhancing day-to-day cleaning, with an emphasis on high-touch points and common use areas;
- continuing the process of replacing water fountains with bottle filling stations.
The school district is also in regular contact with local health care providers and county public health officials on a range of health issues.
POSITIVE COVID CASES/EXPOSURES/ILLNESSES
An important piece of keeping schools healthy and safe is for people with an illness – COVID-19 or other – to stay home. The following protocols are in place at DMPS schools:
- Any student or staff member who tests positive for COVID-19 must isolate for a minimum of 10 days, in compliance with federal, state and local public health guidelines. If a person tests COVID-19 positive and has symptoms, they must stay home at least 10 days since the symptoms first appeared and 24 hours without fever (without fever-reducing medication) and other symptoms of COVID-19 have improved. Students or staff should not return until they feel well enough to participate in class or work. Please work with your school nurse and/or administrator if you have any questions.
- Any unvaccinated student or staff member who is identified as a close contact to a positive COVID-19 case is recommended to stay home (quarantine) for 14 days after exposure, in accordance with public health best practices. Testing is recommended 5-7 days after exposure. Persons who are fully vaccinated and are identified as a close contact do not need to quarantine. However, they should monitor for symptoms and testing is recommended 3-5 days after exposure.
- Any student or staff member who is showing symptoms of any illness, even if they test negative for COVID-19 or have an alternative diagnosis, should stay home. Testing for COVID-19 is strongly recommended for anyone with COVID-19 symptoms and/or if there has been an exposure to COVID-19. Follow-up with a health care provider is also recommended.
- NOTE: For any pending test result, the employee must stay home until results are received.
- Click here for more information on COVID-19 symptoms.
In addition, schools will have “isolation rooms” for students and staff who may develop or show COVID-19 symptoms during the school day. Air purification units have also been installed in these areas as well as nurses’ offices to help minimize the spread of the air-borne virus.
CLOSE CONTACT NOTIFICATION
As the COVID-19 virus continues to be widespread in our community, the health staff at DMPS is working hard to track cases among students and staff. However, the ability to do contact tracing – and notifying everyone who may have had exposure to a person with COVID-19 – is impractical at the secondary school level. Consistent with the approach by other school districts, and aligning with guidance from IDPH and PCHD, DMPS is taking the following approach at secondary and elementary schools:
- SECONDARY SCHOOLS: Students in grades 6-12 are in multiple classrooms throughout the day and, in many cases, multiple buildings or on and off campus. As a result, any effort by our school nurses to monitor close contacts in the secondary grades is not possible. Therefore, students, staff and families should assume that contact with someone who has COVID-19 could happen at school and taken the following precautions:
- Anyone age 12 and older, who has not already done so, should get the COVID-19 vaccination immediately. Appointments can be made at www.immunizepolk.com.
- Everyone, regardless of their vaccination status, must wear a face mask in school for the health and well-being of everyone at school.
- Monitor for symptoms of illness daily and stay home if ill
- PRESCHOOLS/ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS: Because students in grades PK-5 are largely in the same class throughout the school day, our nurses are able to more easily track people who may have had a close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Therefore, notifications of a close contact will continue to be sent to parents/guardians at this time. In addition, everyone in our elementary schools is required to wear a face mask when in the building. We also encourage everyone to monitor for symptoms of illness daily and stay home if ill.
Social distancing is no longer feasible, of course, with a regular five-day school week for the vast majority of our students, nor can school districts change their learning models to hybrid or virtual in the event of an outbreak. Those facts make all of the above steps – from getting vaccinated to following mask requirements to our mitigation work – that much more important.
We are all ready to put the COVID-19 pandemic behind us and, by many accounts, we are on the way. But much work remains to be done. By taking some basic steps, such as getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, and listening to the public health experts, together we can get off to a safe, healthy start and ensure that 2021-22 is a “normal” school year.
NOTE: Information on this page will be updated as needed as the response to the growing number of COVID-19 cases may lead to changes between now and the start of the school year on August 25.