Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, our guests include Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association and a 30-year veteran teacher; Liz Brennan, West Des Moines School Board member, president-elect of the Iowa Association of School Boards board of directors, Heartland AEA board member, and a preschool teacher; and Jessica Drake, president of the Van Meter School Board. They discuss masking and COVID-19 mitigation in schools, as well as other pandemic impacts, education policy, and upcoming school board elections. 

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table is Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa and Iowa Bankers Association.

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Another school year begins in Iowa with an ongoing pandemic injecting health policy and politics directly into school boards and classrooms. We dive into the issues of 2021's return to school on this edition of Iowa Press.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, September 3 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: The familiar sights and sounds of late summer and early fall's return to school are a little different in 2021. A nation hoping to be past the political strife of 2020 is still battling over mask policies and local control. And the policy battle extends far beyond the classroom and into contentious fall elections at local school boards across Iowa in November. To discuss these issues we're joined by Mike Beranek, a 30 year teacher who now serves as President of the Iowa State Education Association. Jessica Drake is President of the Van Meter School Board. And Liz Brennan, a West Des Moines School Board Member as well as a Preschool Teacher, she is also President-elect of the Iowa Association of School Boards. Welcome to you all. Thank you for taking time to be with us today, appreciate it.

Thank you.

Yepsen: Also joining us across the table, Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa. And Kay has also been named to be the new host of this program after I retire. Congratulations, Kay.

Henderson: Congratulations to you as well. Liz, let's start with you. West Des Moines. This past week we learned about the 8,300 Iowans who tested positive for COVID in the past week. 22% of them were under the age of 18. What is the situation in West Des Moines in terms of how this school year is starting with COVID and last school year started?

Brennan: Well, I don't know the numbers exactly, but I know last year when we started we didn't have kids testing positive for COVID. We were more worried about our staff being out with COVID. So this year yes, we are seeing students present with COVID and having to take time off of school and also staff, we are already having a little bit of a staff shortage issue in West Des Moines.

Henderson: Jessica Drake, what is the situation in Van Meter when you compare and contrast the start of the school years?

Drake: Ours actually looks about the same as it did last year. We did not see students presenting with COVID. At our peak of having staff or students out last year of our enrollment of 1,100 people we had about 20 out, that was our peak.

Henderson: Was that in November?

Drake: That would have been in November, yep. And then this year we have seen less than a handful of positive cases. But it's really not much for us right now.

Henderson: Mike Beranek, as the head of the Iowa State Education Association do you have a sense of what the two school years look like statewide?

Beranek: Well, our educators this year were very excited to come back to school hoping that it would be normal. However, I think as we continue to see the spread of the COVID variant we are going to come into situations which are very similar to last year. There was a point last year where 80% of our school districts were requiring masks. Now that's not possible. And so because there is that law put into place we expect the number of 22% of 1,800 kids or people being identified with the variant to continue to grow.

Yepsen: Another question for all three of you. Are you getting the information you need from the state to do your jobs? The accusation has been made that the administration is sort of slow walking the release of some of this data, we have stopped doing daily data reports and now they're bringing it back a couple of times a week. Mike Beranek -- all three of you weigh in on this please -- are we getting the information we need in a timely fashion?

Beranek: We're not. The data that needs to be provided for our local school districts to make the decisions which are appropriate for the communities is not there. Just yesterday there was some information that came out from the Department of Education that says that contact tracing isn't going to be in place unless that is part of the county health department. Well, last year we had much more data. And so we need to have the appropriate data for all of our administrators and school boards to make the decisions which are appropriate for their local communities.

Yepsen: Jessica Drake, are you getting the information you folks need?

Drake: So, we relied heavily last year on the Dallas County Department of Public Health to help influence our decisions that we made at an administrative and board level. If that data is not going to be available and transparent then no, we would not have the data necessary.

Yepsen: Ms. Brennan?

Brennan: And we relied on Polk County and last year we got it and I haven't heard anything quite honestly.

Yepsen: So, could you use more information more quickly?

Brennan: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Everyone wants to be back in school and I don't think there's any argument about that. We all want to be back in school. But we have to be safe.

Yepsen: Kay?

Henderson: I'm wondering, Mike Beranek, republicans control the Statehouse, republican Governor, republican Senate, republican House. Your union hasn't had the best relationship with them. Has this situation exacerbated that disagreement that you have with republican leaders?

Beranek: Well, we're always very willing to have a conversation with anyone from any party. Of course there are times when we may not agree on particular issues and this is a prime example of that. We fully believe that locals should be able to have the ability to make decisions. And with the bill that was signed at midnight last May that put our whole entire public school system into disarray because our classroom teachers and custodians and nurses didn't know that was coming until eight o'clock the next morning. And there should have been an in-depth conversation with us and with our educators regarding that bill.

Henderson: And the bill you're referring to is a bill that said no mask mandates in school, just to be clear in case some of our viewers aren't following this as closely.

Beranek: Absolutely.

Yepsen: I'm curious, Jessica Drake, this law was written really in a different time. Nobody was talking about Delta variants when this law was put into effect. Legislature comes back to do redistricting, they're going to be back next year, should the Iowa legislature re-write this mask mandate ban?

Drake: Yes, I think it goes back again to some of that local control where it is imperative for school boards to be able to look at what is going on within their district and their community to make the determinations that are best in keeping their students and staff safe.

Yepsen: Liz Brennan, same question.

Brennan: One hundred percent. We need to get back to local control. Our school board knows what is best for West Des Moines, her school board knows what is best for Van Meter. I can't say what should happen there and she probably shouldn't be saying what is happening in my district either.

Yepsen: Is there really any difference in Iowa between a big school district like West Des Moines and a smaller one like Van Meter?

Brennan: Well, yeah, I think there is. I think we have different issues. We definitely have different populations. We have more free and reduced lunch kids in West Des Moines than there is in Van Meter so it's an entirely different population.

Drake: Absolutely, it's completely different. And for us in our district we manage one building. We're a K-12 district within one building. So our staff, administration, students are all housed within that one location as opposed to other districts which are spread out within different geographies within their communities.

Yepsen: Mike Beranek, are the problems in Iowa City the same in Orange City?

Beranek: No they're not, sir. If you look at the data from last year, which is available, you will see that there were different rates of contracting the virus across the state. And so Orange City may need to have made a different decision, but they were allowed to make that decision.

Yepsen: You know what the republicans are saying, the teacher's union doesn't run the schools, school boards and other people -- what do you say to that? What should a new law look like?

Beranek: Well, of course one entity doesn't run a school system. It takes a school board, it takes administrators, it takes the parents, the community as well as the educators who are working in the building to help make these decisions. Now, some of those players have been removed, well almost all of them, have been removed from that decisionmaking process.

Henderson: The Governor this week said COVID is here to stay, partly because of the emergence of the variant, the Delta variant that you mentioned earlier, Mike Beranek. Are schools ready to plan for COVID to be here to stay in the same way that they plan for the flu season?

Beranek: Well, I think that we are coming further down the line in terms of planning, if you remember last March a year ago we had a shut down the next day and our educators who were working in our buildings weren't prepared for that. But our educators have worked incredibly hard all last year and this year and the lessons that were learned are incredibly important. But, not only is the Delta variant coming along, there's a new one, Lambda. And so this virus is going to continue on with us so we have to be able to make the appropriate decisions which will keep all of us healthy. If you remember, we probably had, each of us had a sugar cube with polio vaccine and so we were working together as a community to ensure our own safety as well as the safety of everyone in that community.

Yepsen: Jessica Drake, same question.

Henderson: What sort of plans do you as a school board need to make since COVID is here to stay?

Drake: So, we were able to transition quickly in March of 2020 as it related to moving to more of an online learning standpoint. That is not our preference. Our preference is to have our kids in the building learning, building those relationships with other students and adults. But we do feel like we learned a lot of lessons throughout that shut down and then through the following school year that enable us to, if we need to pivot quickly, we can do that from a technology standpoint and resources available to our students and parents.

Henderson: West Des Moines compared to Van Meter has a number of buildings. Have they been retrofitted for the new reality of virus transmission?

Brennan: We're working on it. We're working on it. The federal money is stepping in to help us improve our HVAC systems. And just to go back to what you were talking to them about, it all goes back to local control. If we have another variant come down and we need to be able to switch overnight to help our students and our teachers have a safe learning environment we need the control to be able to say, this is what we have to do to keep our staff and students safe. It doesn't work to have it wait for the Governor to say something.

Yepsen: Do we really face a situation where we have to live with this? Mr. Beranek mentions the Lambda variant, we're talking about Delta now. Lambda some experts wonder if they can even develop a vaccine to combat that. What do you think?

Brennan: I hope we don't have to do this forever. But again, if we are facing more outbreaks like this we have to have the power to face it with logic or with education behind it.

Yepsen: What about the argument, Jessica Drake, that the issue is liberty, that people shouldn't be forced by government to wear a mask? What do you make of that?

Drake: Well, personal opinions aside, my role on the board is to ensure that we're following the laws put in place to support our educational system. And so what we're faced with now is not having a law, or having a law that says we can't do something or shouldn't mandate it. We're encouraging our students, staff and parents to wear masks if they feel that that's appropriate for them and their situation. But without being able to make that decision at the local level it makes it really difficult for school boards across the state of Iowa.

Henderson: Mike Beranek, there is testing data suggesting students fell behind. Some kids exceled at virtual learning, some kids didn't even log on. What needs to happen on a statewide basis to help students who fell behind?

Beranek: Well, that's a very good question, Kay. But we need to first of all remember the entire country was this way. So the state of Iowa isn't any further behind than any other state in the country. Our educators have been working very hard from last year to this year to identify where those needs are and are developing the appropriate strategies and techniques to help bring those kids up to where they may need to be if they are missing some particular area. But the one thing that we all need to pay attention to besides the academic growth is the mental health of our children and the mental health of the individuals working our districts. We have seen that there are a number of educators and children who are in our buildings which are suffering because of the consequences from last year. And this needs to be a focus for everyone within our communities because the mental health is incredibly important.

Yepsen: Jessica Drake, same question. What do you see?

Drake: I absolutely agree with that. We in our district did not have a lot of learning loss or significant gaps that we needed to overcome when we returned to school face-to-face last year and throughout the year. But from a district perspective and then from our board goals we have set mental health as a priority. It was actually a priority prior to COVID hitting, but definitely continues to be on the forefront and exploring different tools and resources that we can provide our students, staff and administration.

Yepsen: Liz Brennan, how far behind are our kids?

Brennan: They're going to be just fine. I know that they're going to be just fine. It might take a little bit of time to get them back to where they should be. But the number one thing we have to do is help their mental health because they can't learn if they're not feeling safe and if they're not feeling supported.

Henderson: So what do you do to address that? Do districts need to hire more mental health professionals? Do you need to set up virtual sessions somewhere in the school for a kid to go and have a virtual conversation with somebody?

Brennan: Yes, yes and yes. Yeah, there's a lot that we can do and part of it is helping them over the summer or having help available after school, having the extra counselors on hand to help them during the school day and really just educating the whole staff that if a kiddo is having trouble in class, it's okay if they step out and go talk to a counselor or go talk to someone. It's something that we're all learning now.

Yepsen: Jessica Drake, we've got a lot of questions. But one last question on this mask mandate law that the state passed. The Department of Education, federal Department of Education has launched an investigation into Iowa's system to see whether there is a civil rights violation that discriminates against people with disabilities. What do you think they're going to find? What is your opinion?

Drake: I wouldn't begin to speculate as to what they're going to find. But logic would tell me that there is a chance they will find that that is in fact the case.

Yepsen: Liz Brennan, what about the politics of this? The Governor's people are saying, this is just the Biden administration jerking around a republican Governor.

Brennan: Right. It's going to be interesting to watch and I can almost guarantee that.

Henderson: Let's shift gears and talk about something that is going to happen this fall, school board elections. As the representative of the Iowa Association of School Boards, why should anybody want this job?

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Brennan: There is nothing better than being able to look at what a school district is doing and see all the wonderful successes that are happening in our schools. Right now I think there's a lot of negative talk out there about schools and what everyone is having to do, but you need to turn that around and look at all the positive things that are happening. There's some great stuff happening in our schools.

Henderson: But aren't you a little bit of a lightning rod?

Drake: Yeah, but you know that going into it whether it's a COVID pandemic situation or not. Our goal is to provide a safe environment for our kids to learn in and to create and foster an environment for students to be well-rounded individuals and contributing to society.

Yepsen: Do you see a reluctance of people to run for school board jobs, positions?

Drake: A little bit. But to be honest, I saw more of a reluctance in the election two years ago. So, I don't know that it is driven by anything that is happening from a political landscape right now.

Yepsen: Mike Beranek?

Beranek: The one thing that we all need to remember is that we elect school board members to represent the entire community. And there will be people who will be running on one issue or another. And there are so many components to being a part of a school board member that we need to be interviewing all of the candidates and we need to be selecting those individuals who truly represent the entire population.

Yepsen: One of the questions -- and I'll ask each of you for an answer to this -- teacher shortage. We hear about shortage of teachers, recruiting and retirements. Mike Beranek, is there a teacher shortage? What do we do about it?

Beranek: There is a teacher shortage across the state of Iowa. Funding is one of the issues that we need to focus on, appropriate salaries for comparable work of other professions. But we need to have a good system built in place where we're recruiting young folks in high school and having them go through our programming. But we need to also understand as a society that everything that is happening in society happens in our schools. And our educators who are working our buildings are trying to not only help children grow and achieve, but they're having to address a myriad of other issues, which may not have been there when we were in school.

Yepsen: Jessica Drake, teacher shortage? What do we do about it? Money?

Drake: Money. The revisions to Chapter 20 enabled districts to have --

Yepsen: Excuse me, that is the law governing collective bargaining by teachers and school boards.

Drake: Yes.

Yepsen: I'm sorry, go ahead.

Drake: That allowed districts to have more control in working with their teachers and their teacher associations and developing that salary structure. So for us in our district it has enabled us to kind of set a higher level of where we wanted our base pay to be. So we have been able to get all of our teachers on that schedule to be on track there so we can have a competitive salary base when it comes to recruiting teachers.

Yepsen: Liz Brennan, if you pay them will they come?

Brennan: I hope so. There's other things, mentorship, there's a lot of other things that can attract teachers. I can say usually metro schools don't have much trouble attracting teachers and we are having trouble in West Des Moines. We have open spots all throughout the district. We cannot find teachers.

Beranek: Can I just jump in real quick? When Chapter 20 was gutted there were many situations across the state where teachers or educators' rights and salaries were not in place and didn't move forward. And so we have developed districts in this state which are have and have not. And there are districts where people are actually looking at the contracts, see what they say and they're moving there. And where the districts haven't modified or kept up with the other districts they're having a problem.

Yepsen: Just a few minutes left, Kay.

Henderson: You mentioned the teacher mentoring program. Is that working? Should it be amended? It was something that Governor Terry Branstad signed during his tenure. It gives, as some of our viewers may not know, some teachers in a building a stipend to sort of be a coach and a mentor to others. Is it working?

Brennan: I think it is. I think it is. My daughter-in-law is a new teacher and she relies on her mentors so much, just having someone to go talk to. And actually this is one of the benefits of COVID maybe you could say is that we are all so used to using Zoom meetings now or electronic meetings that teachers can call across the district or into another district very easily to get support now, which was something that wasn't happening a couple of years ago.

Henderson: Have you seen a difference in Van Meter?

Drake: I have. We place a pretty big emphasis on those teacher leader, teacher mentorship roles and I think it has really been beneficial. We try to have our new staff come in a couple of times a year to report back to the board and just communicate how it is going for them and that is always something that they fall back on is how great it is to have that mentor in the building.

Yepsen: One thing that is happening in our state is more people are homeschooling their children. Liz Brennan, is that your sense? Why is that? Can't the public schools deliver quality goods and services to students?

Brennan: Absolutely we can. But everyone has that option. And in West Des Moines we have a thriving homeschool support group that we can offer special classes that they can come in once or twice a week to go to. And every year our homeschool population grows in West Des Moines.

Yepsen: Jessica?

Drake: We have almost zero homeschooling happening in our district so I'm not really sure I'm the best person to comment on that.

Yepsen: Mike?

Beranek: Well, you know I love public schools and I believe that children need to be in our schools to learn how to function in a democratic society. Of course, it is a decision by that family or guardian or foster care individual, that is their right to make that decision. But my love for public education goes deep.

Yepsen: Another issue is stimulus money. The federal government is shipping a lot of money into the state, different levels of government. What is going to be done with that stimulus money by schools?

Beranek: Well, the American Funds Relief Plan that $1.2 billion is being brought into the state is being utilized by districts for HVAC systems, for PPE equipment, for enhancing work that is being done, they are hiring extra employees. Iowa City is doing a great job. So it can be used for a number of issues. But that $1.2 billion by the Biden administration is phenomenal. But we need to be working in concert, educators, community members and the boards, to utilize that money to its best.

Yepsen: Jessica Drake, what should it be used for?

Drake: It should be used to continue to combat any learning gaps that have been created or if there are issues as it relates to safety or technology within districts. I do think it's important to note that that funding is not uniform across the districts. So, there is a formula put in place that really takes your Title I classification to determine how much funding you get. So our district actually didn't receive much.

Yepsen: Liz Brennan, is this going to be one of these deals where in a couple of years we're seeing schools, oh we redid the football field with this stimulus money?

Brennan: Like everything in education, it is very prescribed as to what you can use the money for. We can't use this money for a football field. So it really is COVID-related issues.

Yepsen: Kay?

Henderson: We have a minute left. Liz Brennan, at your association what is an issue that we haven't talked about today that you think should be on a front burner?

Brennan: I'm not sure about that. But I will say that teacher shortage has really come to the top of our issue list. It wasn't talked about a year ago and now it's in our top three.

Yepsen: Jessica Drake?

Drake: I would say just continuing to look at the data from last year's academic performance of our kids and then also in concert with their mental health and how we can continue to support.

Yepsen: Mike Beranek, 30 seconds. What about Kay's question? What have we overlooked here in this discussion?

Beranek: House File 802 divisive concepts. We need to be focusing on making sure that all of our educators are teaching the truth, which we have been according to Iowa core, Iowa standards. And so there is a lot of narrative out there right now focused on divisive concepts and we need to make sure that everyone understands that our public educators are doing what they need to be doing.

Yepsen: We always have way too many questions and not enough time. But thank you all for taking some of your time to be with us today.

Thank you.

Thank you very much.

Yepsen: Appreciate it. We'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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