School Board Approves Waiver for Virtual Start to School Year

First Day of Classes is Tuesday, September 8; Fall Activities, Sports Will Continue In-Person

The Des Moines School Board has unanimously approved seeking a state waiver for a Return to Learn plan for the 2020-21 school year that would be primarily all-virtual across all grade levels of the school district, with some in-person instruction for select programs and student needs. The waiver seeks to start classes in 100% virtual instruction at DMPS and transition to the previously developed Return to Learn plan when COVID-19 conditions in Polk County allow for safe, physically distanced in-person instruction. The school district expects to hear from the state this week, and will have further details to share about the start of the new school year at that time.

In addition, the School Board approved delaying the start of the school year until Tuesday, September 8, and stated that DMPS will continue to hold in-person sports and activities.

“Des Moines Public Schools began planning for how to begin the 2020-21 school year right after we knew the 2019-20 school year was going to have to finish through distance learning due to COVID-19,” said Kyrstin Delagardelle, chair of the Des Moines School Board. “Thousands of hours of time – along with input from thousands of members of our community – went into developing a Return to Learn plan according to the guidelines issued by the Iowa Department of Education.”

“Nearly three weeks after Iowa school districts submitted their Return to Learn plans, the Governor issued a proclamation which, among other things, claimed schools would be required to deliver at least 50% of instruction in person. We strongly disagree with her interpretation of Senate File 2310 and believe it is clear that locally elected school boards are the ones to make these decisions in the best interest of their districts and community,” added Delagardelle. “In fact, all signs since July 1 point to the need for less, not more, in-person instruction at this time. Our local conditions at DMPS – from community transmission rates to building capacity to class sizes to at-risk factors for many of our employees and families – mean that beginning the year at 50% or greater capacity would not be in the interest of the health and well-being of our students, staff, and their families.”

“We have been trying to work closely with the State, including conversations with the Governor and the Iowa Department of Education, to develop a plan that meets everyone’s expectations and we look forward to the Department of Education’s response to our waiver application,” said Dr. Thomas Ahart, superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools. “And before anyone suggests otherwise, this has nothing to do with defying anyone or anything and has everything to do with educating our students AND keeping our community safe during a time of continuing uncertainty around COVID-19.”

The School Board also approved a change to the 2020-21 calendar, making Tuesday, September 8 the first day of classes for DMPS students. The last day of school will continue to be June 1, as previously scheduled. Professional development days for educators will be moved to late August and early September in order to provide additional support for the transition to online learning.

Finally, last Friday the Iowa Department of Education issued an advisory “Frequently Asked Questions” providing additional recommendations on return to learn planning, including a note stating that schools in a virtual method of instruction should not participate in in-person extra-curricular activities. The School Board believes that local decision-making will result in the best result for our community, and will not end in-person activities for students participating in virtual learning.

“Health and safety are our primary concerns, but they cannot be the only consideration. Extracurricular activities occupy an important place in education, and for many DMPS students participation in activities keeps them motivated and engaged in their classwork,” noted Delagardelle. “Unlike much online instruction, many activities must be done in person. They are also entirely voluntary, and we respect the choices that our students, staff and their families will make regarding whether they participate in extracurricular activities this fall or not.

“Activities involve relatively small groups of students and staff, making contact tracing easier and more effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 than it would be in a building with several hundred or more students and staff present each day,” added District Activities Director Jason Allen. “DMPS will continue to support in-person sports and activities at this time. District and building level staff will closely monitor the situation and adjust course as needed to support the health and safety of our community. We expect coaches, staff and students to fully abide by the COVID-19 guidelines set out by the state athletic and activities organizations, and failure to do so will result in the end of a program’s season through no fault other than their own.”

DMPS will be providing further details for parents and students in the upcoming days, including a series of virtual meetings to learn more about the start of the 2020-21 school year.

Click here to download a copy of Superintendent Ahart’s letter in support of the DMPS waiver request.