SIOUX CITY -- With novel coronavirus cases spiking in Woodbury County, Sioux City public school district superintendent Paul Gausman said every day he ponders suspending in-person instruction in some schools to make sure students and staff are safe.
"I don't think we are there yet...But we are getting close," Gausman told the school board Monday.
The superintendent's comments came after board member Dan Greenwell said the district "could be facing a situation where we have to consider" closing some school buildings.
Guasman said he knows board members are concerned about keeping students safe, so if cases rise to a concerning level, he would not wait for the twice-monthly school board meetings to ask the Iowa Department of Education for permission to move instruction from in-person to online. Whether asking to move one of the more than 20 schools or all district buildings to online learning, the state will give an answer within 48 hours, Gausman said.
As of Tuesday, when 115 new cases were added over the last 24 hours, there have been more than 8,500 positive coronavirus cases this year in Woodbury County. That total is greatly up from the 4,850 cases reported on Sept. 18. There have been 103 county residents, up by one from Monday, who have died from COVID-19.
For the third meeting in two months, board member Monique Scarlett again pushed for a change to hybrid learning, since she contends students are at risk of dying, so she wants that change as a way to "flatten the curve."
The key statistic measure local and state officials are watching is the 14-day average of positive tests in each of Iowa's 99 counties. In late July, the Iowa Department of Education issued a directive that allowed school districts to ask permission to conduct all classes online for 14 days, if the two-week average of positive new tests is 15 percent or higher.
Scarlett said while the Woodbury County positivity rate is 21.5 percent, there are many surrounding counties with rates well above 20 percent. The list includes Sioux, Lyon and Ida counties in the range of 27 to 28 percent, and with adjacent Plymouth County at 28.9 percent.
"We must be proactive, rather than reactive, when the (virus) flood comes in," Scarlett said.
As a response to coronavirus spread, district officials in late summer decided the 2020-21 year would begin Aug. 25, with approximately half the students attending school in person on Mondays and Thursdays, and the other half on Tuesdays and Fridays. That phase ended Sept. 9.
Since that time, after announcements by district officials of rising positive cases of coronavirus, many class sections have moved to online learning. Two West Middle School class sections moved to that method on Nov. 6, and well above a dozen class sections have moved online since early September, including several at Leeds Elementary School.
In district schools, there is frequent cleaning of rooms on a daily and weekly basis, lots of signs promoting social distancing, and a requirement to wear masks in buildings and buses. Scarlett said she's heard numerous reports of students and even staff not wearing masks, adding, "That should not be tolerated."
Gausman said he would welcome anyone with knowledge of personnel not wearing masks to send him tips, so he can have administrators check into it.
In a news conference Tuesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds said she would impose new emergency restrictions on large social gatherings. The new rules, which took effect at midnight Tuesday, are designed to slow a surge in COVID-19 cases that threaten to overwhelm Iowa’s health care system and force more schools into online learning.
For the next 30 days, there are additional restrictions on social, community, leisure and recreational events. For any such gathering with 10 people or more, there must be six feet of social distancing between groups.
If an indoor event exceeds 25 people — or an outdoor event exceeds 100 people — all over age 2 must wear a mask. However, Reynolds did not impose any broader statewide mask mandate, as many of her critics have demanded.
Three and a half months after voicing concerns about having in-person schooling, a Sioux City teacher again returned to tell board members that teachers are stretched thin and "burnout" has resulted, and that students aren't safe in classrooms.
"There is no way to keep students six feet apart," North High School art teacher Lesa Banks said in the public forum portion that led off Monday's board meeting.
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