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Iowa City must hold in-person classes, judge rules

Published: Sep. 8, 2020 at 4:15 PM CDT
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IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG) - On the same day Iowa City students had their first day of classes entirely online, a district court judge Tuesday ruled the Iowa City Community School District must hold in-person classes unless it gets a waiver from the state.

The district had filed a lawsuit asking for an injunction to Governor Kim Reynolds order that all schools must hold at least half of its classes in-person during the COVID-19 emergency. The district argued the Governor’s Office overstepped its authority in taking away the decision from the local school board.

The district asked a judge to block that order until the lawsuit is decided. The judge denied that request, meaning Iowa City must follow the Governor’s order while the lawsuit proceeds. A judge in Polk County issued a similar verdict on a lawsuit brought by the Des Moines School District.

The ruling came on the same day Iowa City Schools held its first day of classes all online. The Iowa Department of Education granted the district a 2-week waiver allowing online instruction due to rising COVID-19 positivity rates in Johnson County. That waiver also means all sports and activities in the district are suspended while classes are online-only.

The district filed the lawsuit after Governor Reynolds issued an order on July 17th requiring all districts hold at least 50% of their classes in-person. Iowa City argues it wasted weeks of time working on Return-to-Learn plans, at the direction of the Iowa Department of Education, and had approved a plan to hold all classes online just 3 days before Governor Reynolds' order.

The district’s lawsuit centers on the interpretation of SF2310, which the Iowa legislature approved in June, during a COVID-19 shortened session. That law states districts cannot “primarily” provide remote-learning unless the Governor specifically allows it. The judge sided with the Reynolds administration that “primarily” would mean at least 50% of classes should be in-person.

The ruling says the Iowa Constitution gives Governor Reynolds broad authority under a public health emergency, so the district’s legal arguments are not likely to succeed.

“There is not specific authorization in the Iowa Code to school boards to make these specific types of emergency decisions, such as is given to the Iowa Governor,” the judge writes.

The judge also says the fact Iowa City Schools have already received a waiver to hold online classes due to rising COVID-19 cases proves the district is not facing “irreparable” harm from the Governor’s order.

“The emergency powers utilized by the Iowa Governor essentially have worked as they were intended to; infection rates in the ICCSD rose to levels that authorized the school board to seek 100% remote-learning, and, having considered the infection rates, the ICCSD was granted permission to proceed with 100% remote learning,” the ruling states.

“While COVID-19 certainly presents the risk of harm to Petitioners' members, staff, and students, there also are risks to students that may result from school closures,” the judge concludes. “The risks are compelling and equal on both sides of this argument, and (the district) cannot show that the harms of which they complain outweigh those of the experiences that students might have if schools are permitted to shutdown indefinitely and without oversight from (the Reynolds administration).”

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