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Iowa Sees Pressure To Reopen Schools, But Safety Fears Persist

NOEL KING, HOST:

Iowa's governor, Kim Reynolds, has mandated that all schools in the state offer families the option of on-campus school days starting on February 15. Some districts say they can't guarantee that students will be safe from the coronavirus. Here's Clay Masters from Iowa Public Radio.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: High school senior River Wise has been learning from home since the pandemic began. He says some of the things he misses about being in school surprise him.

RIVER WISE: I miss being bumped around in the hallways. I miss, like, trying to, like, squeeze my way through class (laughter) - just like little things like that.

MASTERS: Wise now has the option to go back to those familiar hallways soon. But he says he'll stick with online classes because he doesn't want to risk getting COVID-19 and infecting his family. But other kids will be returning to his Des Moines school. And Qynne Kelly, the associate principal at Lincoln High, says teachers there are preparing for full classrooms.

QYNNE KELLY: We've given them the flexibility to kind of determine what their spaces look like. You know, do they want to do rows, kind of distance groups? It really depends on what classroom they're in and the size of the roster and the class roster. But essentially, in most of our classes now, moving forward, it's going to be virtually impossible to distance them at all starting February 15.

MASTERS: The move to force school districts to offer fully in-person classes follows the trend of less stringent COVID-19 prevention efforts in Iowa. Governor Kim Reynolds has been reluctant to embrace mandates. There's a confusing set of rules for masking here. Restaurants and bars have mostly remained open, so have most schools in the state. Reynolds has allowed schools to offer a hybrid plan, where 50% of their instruction had to be in person, and the other half could be online. She says students need to be back in classrooms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM REYNOLDS: It's unconscionable to think of their social, emotional well-being and to think of not having access to behavioral health. I mean, who are we? We have a responsibility to make sure these kids have a safe environment to learn in.

MASTERS: Starting next week, parents here will have just two options - send their kids to school or have them learn completely online. Kate Casaletto lives in Iowa City and will send her first-grader to school because he'd get extra help in reading.

KATE CASALETTO: I agree that they need to be in school, right? Otherwise, I wouldn't have chosen the hybrid model for him when that was available. And I just think it's being rushed.

MASTERS: Casaletto thinks teachers and staff should be vaccinated before kids return. But Iowa's vaccine distribution has been slow going. There's not enough for all teachers yet. Take Des Moines Public Schools, the state's largest district. Five hundred district staff are ready to be vaccinated, but that's out of 5,000. Thomas Ahart is the district's superintendent.

THOMAS AHART: If Polk County Health Department gave us all of the vaccines that they have for the first three weeks of February that weren't already allocated to health systems, that wouldn't even be enough to vaccinate all the staff in Des Moines Public Schools. And so it does have a bit of a "Hunger Games" feel to it.

MASTERS: Ahart is concerned that the darkest days of the pandemic could lie ahead. The U.K. variant, which is more transmissible, has been confirmed in Iowa. While things are hardly back to normal, school districts here will have to do what they can to stay vigilant, even as students are welcomed back to buildings that aren't set up to keep them safe.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.