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Schools discuss absenteeism change for virtual classes

A change to the states guidelines for calculating school absentee rates has made it more challenging for schools to transition to virtual learning.

At school board meetings this week, Mid-Prairie and Washington discussed the recent change.

At a special school board meeting Tuesday, Superintendent Mark Schneider explained that, earlier this year, the state gave schools three options for learning models for the 2020-21 school year — full-time in person, hybrid (part in person, part online) or 100 percent online.

“Before school started, they said in order to go to 100 percent online, the county positivity rate has to be at 20 percent over a two-week period, and the absentee rate in the district has to be at least 10 percent,” Schneider said. “At that time, their guidance to calculate that rate includes students who were COVID positive; it includes students that are quarantined; it includes people that are self-isolating because of exposure; and includes all students with illness.”

For schools to shift from in-person to remote learning, the Department of Education as well as the Iowa Department of Public heath said schools need to meet two conditions: At least 15 to 20 percent of COVID-19 tests in the county over the past two weeks came back positive and at least 10 percent of students are absent due to illness.

On Sept. 3, the Iowa Department of Education held a webinar for school nurses featuring State Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati and Dr. Ann Garvey, deputy state epidemiologist. In the PowerPoint slides, nurses were instructed to only count an absent for confirmed COVID-19 cases, students isolating due to symptoms of COVID-19 or other illnesses.

Nurses were instructed to not count students who are quarantined at home due to an exposure.

“On Friday, the state, in their wisdom, said you no longer include students who are in quarantine,” Schneider said. “So in essence, the state has really taken away one of the three models. We will never be at 10 percent.

“I’m just saying the state basically took away one of the three models available to school districts in Iowa without really coming out and saying, ‘We’re taking it away.’”

At the Washington school board meeting, Washington Superintendent Willie Stone was unable to attend, but a school board member read his report.

Stone said now, to get to the 10 percent threshold districtwide, Stone said they would need 144 kids out due to positive tests or illness.

As of Sept. 4, the school was at 3.33 percent district wide absenteeism with one positive test, 22 in quarantine due to exposure and 47 with other illnesses.

Building specific numbers on Friday were: Stewart at 4.07 percent, Lincoln at 3.81 percent, middle school at 2.9 percent and high school at 2.58 percent.

“That threshold was a big change for all the districts in the state,” Stone said.

At the time of Tuesday’s meeting, Johnson County’s 14-day rolling average positivity rate stood at 31.7 percent. Mid-Prairie school district contains students from both Johnson and Washington counties.

On the same day, Mid-Prairie’s 14-day rolling average absentee rate — with quarantined students included — was at 13.8 percent, with six positive COVID-19 cases, 33 absences due to other illnesses and 130 absent due to quarantine.

“If we were to (remove quarantined students from the calculation), instead of having an absentee rate of almost 14 percent, our absentee rate would be about 3 percent,” Schneider said. “So in essence, if we need an absentee rate of 10 percent in order to apply, if you want to, we would probably have to have over 100 students who have COVID-19.

“If we had over 100 students who had COVID-19, our community would be shut down.”

He said that the threshold was basically impossible to meet.

“It’s like saying a school district can’t apply for online learning unless the superintendent can swim the English Channel,” he said. “Well, this superintendent can’t swim across the swimming pool, so we’d never be able to do online learning.”

Mid-Prairie board member Denise Chittick asked if the district would be allowed to consider the hybrid model for certain buildings.

“The board can do that, too,” Schneider said. “At Clear Creek Amana, their high school is essentially every other day, but the rest of the building is 100 percent in-person.”

Mid-Prairie Board Vice President Jeremy Pickard emphasized that the best way to control the spread of the virus is with social distancing, which he acknowledged would be easier with a hybrid model.

However, he said that any gains by increased social distancing at school could be lost with students in child care when not at school.

“I’d like to see what happens after the first wave,” Pickard said.

The Mid-Prairie schools has a spreadsheet available on its website under “COVID-19 data” that lists the absences as well as the percent absent.

The Washington schools have started a spreadsheet to keep track of their COVID-19 cases. Currently Stone is working through some of the kinks, but plans to have the data posted on the school website next week.