Des Moines Public Schools decided to start the year mostly online because of local spread of the coronavirus even after the Iowa Department of Education rejected the plan. Michael Leland/IPR
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Iowa Public Radio News | By Grant Gerlock

A Polk County judge has ruled against Des Moines Public Schools’ request to temporarily suspend the Iowa Department of Education’s Return-to-Learn rules while a lawsuit aimed at overturning them works through the courts.

Depending on the result of that lawsuit, DMPS may have to bring students back in-person at least half of the time or risk making up for virtual days at the end of the school year.

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“We are disappointed in today’s ruling denying our request for a temporary injunction to allow DMPS to begin the year online,” Superintendent Thomas Ahart said in a statement. “Local control has long been at the heart of school operations in our state. In these unprecedented times we need more flexibility, not less, and we believe that is what the legislature intended to provide us.”

DMPS opened the year with primarily virtual classes Tuesday, without approval from the Department of Education, as a precaution against spreading COVID-19 among students and staff. The department had denied the district’s plan to start online last month because the two-week infection rate for Polk County was below the state’s high threshold of 15 percent.

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In his ruling denying DMPS’ injunction request, Judge Jeffrey Farrell said school boards cannot choose remote learning unilaterally. He said the question is not whether the Department of Education or the Des Moines School Board made the right policy decision.

“The question is which government body is authorized to make the decision,” Farrell wrote. “This is an area in which state law controls.”

Farrell did not endorse the state’s policy requiring at least 50 percent in-person instruction during the coronavirus pandemic, but said the district must follow it while the lawsuit goes forward.

“There is no question that DMPS is using a more robust collection of factors than the simplistic model used by (the Department of Education). Still, this does not mean that (the department’s) decision can be reversed because it disregarded the facts.”

Farrell said a law (SF 2310) passed unanimously by the legislature allowed Gov. Kim Reynolds and the IDOE to set the terms for schools to reopen and go virtual. In a statement, Reynolds applauded the decision.

“The court’s decision today recognizes that we are correctly interpreting Iowa law, and I remain committed to working with Des Moines Public Schools on their return to learn plan so that it meets the educational and health needs of Iowa’s children,” Reynolds said in a statement.

Superintendent Ahart said online learning would continue for most students “until further notice.” He testified last week that the district cannot safely distance students in its high schools, even under a hybrid plan. He also said the cost of extending the year if the district is forced to make up for virtual days would likely exceed its spending authority.

The Iowa City and Ames community school districts also started classes online Tuesday while they pursue their own lawsuits against the state rules. However, they were approved by IDOE to spend the first two weeks of the school year online because of the high rate of COVID-19 infections in Johnson and Story counties.

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