Educating Iowa's Children During a Pandemic

Iowa Press | Episode
Apr 10, 2020 | 58 min

In this Iowa Press Special, a panel of education experts participate in a live discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on Iowa's K-12 education system, answering viewer questions submitted via email, phone and social media. 

The panel includes Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association; Dr. Stacey Cole, superintendent of the Storm Lake Community School District; and Dr. Thomas Ahart, superintendent of the Des Moines Public Schools. Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table will be Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa. 

Program support provided by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.


As Iowans press through a global pandemic, various sectors of American life are under tremendous pressure to adapt. We dig into the many issues confronting Iowa's K-12 schools during the coronavirus outbreak on this special hour-long edition of Iowa Press.


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. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.


Celebrating nearly 50 years of public affairs coverage on statewide Iowa PBS, this is an Iowa Press special edition on the coronavirus pandemic. Here is David Yepsen.


Yepsen: As weeks stretch towards more than a month of closures in Iowa, the far reaching impact of the COVID-19 outbreak creates public policy dilemmas in nearly every sector of American life. For Iowa's public schools, the extended closures have forced tough decisions on teachers, administrators and beleaguered parents working from home with the kids. To discuss how Iowa schools are confronting this crisis, we're joined remotely by a trio of guests. Mike Beranek is the President of the Iowa State Education Association. Dr. Stacy Cole is Superintendent of the Storm Lake Community School District. And Dr. Thomas Ahart is Superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools. Welcome to all of you. Thank you for joining us tonight.

Thank you.

Thank you for having us.

Yepsen: Joining us in the studio is Kay Henderson, News Director for Radio Iowa. We've expanded our regular format on Iowa Press to a full one hour and you can see the many ways to submit your potential questions for our experts via email and social media or through our 800 number listed on screen. We'll incorporate some of your questions into the back half of the program. Kay?

Henderson: David, today the school districts of Iowa were required to submit to the state a plan for how to educate students for the rest of the school year. Let's start with Storm Lake. What is your plan?

Cole: So, we believe that the relationship between education and freedom is deep and profound and that remote learning shines a light on the opportunity gap. And so we felt because of that, that we had to go with optional learning because we weren't ready at the time of school closures to offer all of the things that we would need to differentiate for all of our kids. So that is why we chose an optional learning route.

Henderson: What has been the decision in the Des Moines Public Schools?

Ahart: Similar to Storm Lake. We just submitted our plan this afternoon and we're going all voluntary. We do understand, though, that we have an option moving forward when we're ready to shift to mandatory in the event that we feel like we can accomplish that. We have, just real quickly, sorry -- one of the things I think people are failing to realize is that this is a tremendous burden on our teachers. Virtually none of our teachers were trained to engage their students virtually and in this unique circumstance many of our teachers are home trying to care for their own families while at the same time attempting to instruct a classroom full of children. So it's really a unique set of challenges not just for the students but also for our instructional staff.

Henderson: Well, let's turn to the Iowa State Education Association. What is the number one concern that you are hearing from your fellow teachers?

Beranek: Well, first of all, thank you Mr. Yepsen and Ms. Henderson for having us this evening. Really the number one concern for all of our folks is the health and safety and welfare of our students and our staff and our communities. That is the paramount issue. And so understanding that we need to work to find alternative ways to reach out to students and families is something that all of our staff members are trying to do. And after looking at the safety and the health of our students, the next issue would be their mental health. Students are developing anxiety issues that we need to help them work through. They are isolated, they're not seeing their friends, they're not having contact with the people in their lives that mean a great deal during a school day. And so all of our educators, transportation workers, nutrition service workers, classroom teachers are finding ways to reach out to students and stay connected with them.

Yepsen: Dr. Cole, I want to start with you. I want each of you to answer this question about broadband. We've talked for years in this state about rural broadband and expanding broadband technology. Do you have the bandwidth that you need? Is Iowa set up for this kind of instruction?

Cole: I don't know that bandwidth in our area is the big need. I would say Storm Lake is not set up for this type of instruction. We are not a one-to-one district, our kids don't all have devices. Even though we're doing the voluntary learning, similarly to Des Moines, that we still handed out devices to kids that let us know that they needed devices. So I think there's a lot of complex issues that goes into teaching remotely beyond the broadband. I think even beyond that education has been sort of a compliance driven format, right, we take attendance every period, we make sure that we're doing a certain amount of class time for each subject area. And not only is Internet and devices and all of that something that is challenging us, but moving away from what was sort of our norm and moving into a new environment are all big challenges that face our staff.

Yepsen: Dr. Ahart, what about Iowa's largest school district? You've got a lot of minority students, lower income students. Are they prepared for remote learning?

Ahart: No. We have been attempting to move in the direction of being able to be one-to-one and mainly what has been driving us to do that is to lengthen the school year, quite frankly, to be able to effectively and efficiently connect with students over those long, what turned out to be very long summer months for a lot of our students who because of their family circumstances don't have all the supports that we would hope all of our children have. So we have, we're in the process of trying to connect, our estimate right now is 5,500 students, to the Internet. And we knew that that gap existed. We have enough devices for every single one of our students. We're not a one-to-one district simply because the utility of being one-to-one when your students can't be connected once they leave the school building really renders that an investment and risk and liability that is just not with the, the juice isn't worth the squeeze, as they say. So we're distributing devices as we speak and we're also moving as rapidly as possible to get every single one of our students connected to the Internet. But as we discuss this as a state certainly there are Internet deserts around the state in rural areas, that's for sure. My mom suffers from that living on a farm in Western Iowa. But what we also need to recognize is that in our urban settings there are also Internet deserts. Where I really feel like we ought to go as a state, and I'm hopeful that this pandemic crisis will help elevate, is in 2020 we really ought to be viewing an Internet connection as a basic utility like we do with telephone and electricity and water. Our state has a rich history of being very progressive in this regard. We were very aggressive in getting our rural areas electrified and certainly our cities electrified and our rural communities connected by telephone service. And you could argue, I think, that the Internet is even more important right now. It's how we connect socially, it's how we connect economically. So really to play in today's society we need access to the Internet and our schools, and I've mentioned this on too many occasions to remember, one thing that the state of Iowa does exceedingly well is fund every single one of our students' public education equally regardless of zip code. But what we do an embarrassingly poor job of is funding our students equitably and this digital divide that we're faced with now in K-12 education as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic really shines a bright spotlight on that.

Yepsen: Mike Beranek, what about this question of broadband? What are you hearing from your members around the state?

Beranek: Well, Mr. Yepsen, this really is an issue of equity all across our state. Just recently before we were closed I toured the eastern part of the state and I was in a large city and they had provided hot spots to all of their students this past year and they were able to stay connected that way. And then 30 minutes outside of the city I was visiting more teachers and they were telling me that they cannot connect to the Internet, they don't have access to their school's resources because they live in a rural area where they don't have Internet and this was before our schools were closed. And so this situation has caused a lot of anguish and a lot of heartache for our folks to work in our schools and for our students and our families. And so the one positive that we can identify out of this whole situation is that we need to recognize the level of inequity that we have in our state and it's not just with broadband but it's also with the amount of technology available in a home. I mean, if the parents are home working and they only have one piece of technology, they need to be on that computer to do their work and then the students need to be on that at a different time of day. And so families trying to navigate one piece of technology and the broadband may be slow, and so they may not be able to communicate as quickly as they need. And then on top of that the inequities of so many families that don't have resources for food and health care. And the number of students that our schools are feeding throughout the week is remarkable. And I have to really commend both of these superintendents as well as all of the districts around the state finding ways to help feed students during this time. And so the breadth of inequity is something that we really need to address after this is all done and identify how we can allocate more resources for everyone to have the same access.

Henderson: On this Friday night, Iowa's Governor has issued a proclamation on a wide range of topics and one of them is the graduation requirements in Iowa high schools. Dr. Cole, by my reading it looks as if a student will not be required to fulfill all of the course requirements. What has your I guess school been counseling seniors as they approach this really uncertain time?

Cole: So, the Department of Education has been doing some Zoom meetings with superintendents across the state since I think the first week of school closures and all along they have talked with us about being lenient with our seniors and making sure that COVID-19 was not the barrier that stopped them from graduating. So they have been saying for a while that some of those state requirements such as CPR, government, those things could be loosened at the state level and then it's up to local control for local school boards to determine whether or not we need to loosen those also and that we should be working with our students to do all we can to help them meet those graduation requirements. And so that is actually what we have been doing all along. We have been reaching out to kids, helping them show competency within the courses that they're taking, we've had school counselors in working every day creating lists of kids who are on the edge saying okay, let's reach out to them and really by day two ,this went into full force action. And I can't thank our staff enough for making that happen.

Henderson: Mr. Beranek, you mentioned mental health. Are you concerned as these students move on to a post high school world that they may not be as successful in college as the class of 2019 because of this COVID experience?

Beranek: Well, students are incredibly resilient and I think that the education that they receive in our public schools they understand the importance of cooperative working together and relationship building and communicating. It may take some of those students who move on to a post high school education a few minutes to catch up to speed. But no, that's not a concern of mine. I think kids will be able to be working through that.

Yepsen: Dr. Ahart, is this really a lost school year? How do you make up the lost time? You have to redo your lesson plans for next year? Do teachers have to redo their lesson plans? Really isn't this a lost school year for Iowa students?

Ahart: That's a great question. I'm not sure that I would call it a lost school year. But in some respects I suppose you could call it that. In Des Moines we have, you referenced this earlier, some challenging demographic situations, over 75% of our students qualify for free or reduced price lunch and 22% of our students are not native English speakers and we have students who were born in over 100 countries from around the world. There's a lot of things that happen in the school in addition to the academic learning that is vital to the students' development. And this this gap now, and I really appreciate Mike bringing this up a couple of times already, there's a loss of learning time for sure and we have some students for whom we have been trying to accelerate their progress so that we get them to grade level. This time will take more time to make up than what was lost. In other words, if we're out of school for a month it's going to take more than a month to replace that time. But almost more important to that is that the instability that has been brought into their lives as a result of losing the basic routines that they count on day in and day out, the interaction with their teachers and the interaction with their peers that is really doing almost as much as the academic learning to help develop the whole child.

Yepsen: But, Dr. Ahart, you also have students you just lose track of, you can't see the student. In addition to all of the challenges we've just talked about, access on the Internet, teachers' abilities, some students just aren't even showing up, they're just not participating. Some can't and some aren't, correct?

Ahart: Correct. Correct. We have been surveying all of our families, as Dr. Cole mentioned earlier, to determine who needs a device at home and who needs an Internet connection and we started immediately with our seniors because they all have plans for what is going to happen after graduation and before we got this new guidance this evening from the Governor and regardless of that guidance we want to make sure that this year counts for them and that they are set up for success in whatever their plans are to pursue after graduation. But we still have a handful of students at each of our comprehensive high schools that we have yet to be able to connect with. There's a whole host of reasons for why that is. But you're exactly right, we are still trying to connect and under these circumstances it's much more difficult than normal. We'll continue to pursue that. But you're right.

Yepsen: I apologize for having to interrupt all of you. I was taught in school not to do that, but as a moderator you sometimes have to and we've got way too many questions. Kay?

Henderson: Dr. Cole, it strikes me that many educators have been concerned about the amount of screen time their students use these screens every day and now screen time is the main mode by which they're going to learn. How do you balance this?

Cole: That is a great question because I would agree with you, that's always a concern. I would always make the case and still make the case that a computer, even with a teacher talking through it, will never replace the comprehensive education that Mr. Ahart described just moments ago. There's so much more to educating kids than bringing them in and teaching them cursive, teaching them math, teaching them to read. We know those are important, we know literacy is power and we need to do that. But we know the thing our kids are missing more than anything else right now is the humans that they interact with every day in our school. And we too are facing challenges getting to meet with all of our kids and hearing from them. That is absolutely a goal that we have for all of our staff and we continue to pursue that and persist and call them and find ways to have interactions with them. But this is a really hard time to balance that because we do not ever want to give the impression that a device is the way that you get quality education.

Yepsen: Mike Beranek, it's also true that teachers are mandatory reporters in cases of child abuse if they see something. Are there physical safety concerns? We don't have teachers seeing students, putting their eyeballs on them and seeing if there is a bruise or some problem. What are we doing about this problem in our society?

Beranek: Well, that's a very good question, Mr. Yepsen. We were just talking about this last week as an association. We are still required to report any instances that we may believe are occurring and we're required by law to do that. And those situations do come up and you can see something over the Internet, you can hear it in a child's voice when you're talking on a phone, you can read it between the lines on a note that may be sent back and forth. And so we are encouraging all of our folks who are working in our schools to maintain that status as a mandatory reporter and to report anything that is happening. I've heard that the reports are down statewide with the Department of Human Services. And that is very concerning. And so we need to keep this in the forefront of our minds and seek every opportunity that we can to learn from our students while they're away from us in their homes.

Henderson: Dr. Ahart, what about the ACT and the SAT and some of the other tests that students take? What are you going to do?

Ahart: In Des Moines we give, we provide the ACT for all of our students and that testing date has already passed so we have thankfully the majority of our students, our juniors this year, have already taken the ACT. So that is purely by luck of the draw. The ACT actually sets that date for us and it happened this year that it occurred prior to our release from school. Advance placement tests is something that we, advanced placement courses is something that we push very hard in Des Moines schools and we do not set the date for those tests either, the College Board does. We're grateful that the College Board recognized that this is going to be impossible to do as we normally do so as soon as we knew we were going to be closing school for a period of time our first effort in connecting with students was our seniors and then also our underclassmen who were taking concurrent enrollment courses, we discussed that earlier offline I guess, and our AP students. So our teachers have been connecting with our AP students and hopefully mitigating the loss of actually high quality in person ,instruction. But there's no doubt that students are at a disadvantage this year when they're taking those tests.

Henderson: Dr. Cole, I don't know what percentage of your high schoolers are doing this, but thousands of high school students around the state are taking courses for credit at community colleges. What sort of accommodations have you in your district been able to make?

Cole: So, similarly to Des Moines we did the same thing, we started making plans at the high school level, first looking at our seniors and then looking at our kids that were in those concurrent enrollment classes, those AP classes, making sure that they have the devices and the support and the structure that they need to make those happen. Iowa Central College is the college that we work with and right away they contacted us and talked through how they were changing some drop dates and withdraw dates to work with leniency for our kids. So we actually met with all of our kids that were in concurrent enrollment courses via Zoom and talked with them about pushing through and persisting if they had the ability to do that, but also not trying to do something because they thought someone else thought they should do that and that if they signed up for stats and stats online isn't for them, that there is no shame in going ahead and dropping that stats class and getting the face-to-face support that you need. And we all know that there are some classes you can move online somewhat effectively and some simply can't be moved online.

Yepsen: Dr. Ahart, let me expand Kay's question out. What does this do to, this turmoil in this testing do, this has to be happening all over the country, what does it do to the student's ability to get into the college of their choice? What have you heard it's doing to the college admission process?

Ahart: Well, interestingly in the challenge that we were given by the state last week in submitting a plan this afternoon for what we were going to do for the next two weeks while schools were closed and at least what districts like Des Moines are doing for the remainder of the year, one of the things that popped up to us was NCAA requirements. And one of the options that we were considering is since we do have a compromised school year, as we've talked about earlier, do we move to a pass/fail rather than a letter grade for some courses so that we do the absolute best job we can at finishing a course and meeting the standards for that course with each student. But instead of issuing an A, B, C, D or F relegate that to a pass/fail. In the past that has been a detriment on a student's transcripts as it relates to NCAA eligibility but I believe the NCAA is excusing that for the second semester of this year. In terms of what it's going to mean for college admissions at large we don't have a complete picture of that yet, certainly students' grade point averages are going to be compromised to some degree, especially if we move to a pass/fail. And certainly with an extended school closure we can't be confident, nor can the universities and colleges that are considering admittance, that our normal level of standard has been met. So we're still, and I think if you talk to higher ed they would be saying the same thing, we're still trying to work through that swamp of what this interruption in instruction means.

Yepsen: Dr. Cole, we want to switch to viewer questions in just a moment. But I want to ask you a budget question. Dr. Ahart alluded to this earlier. What does this do to your school's budget? What is this doing to the budgets and the finances of local school districts? But more importantly, is there anything you expect the next session of the legislature to do about it?

Cole: Well, much like we've talked about families being under monumental stress right now, this is definitely on my list of things that keeps me up at night. We were super grateful to the Governor and the legislature this year to show that they value education and put SSA at the top of their list and get that percentage out to us right away. But I think anyone that would tell you that there are not uncertainties coming at us all the time with regards to this would be misleading. And so there are concerns about what happens, people with building projects going on and wondering about what happens with sales tax revenue and all of those things are very much a concern. And my crystal ball is pretty cloudy right now so it's kind of hard to predict what is going to happen because I would not have predicted school closures for this length of time.

Yepsen: We want to switch to viewer questions and Kay Henderson has the first one.

Henderson: This one comes from Rose via Twitter and first of all, she thanks all of you for your service to the state and to its students. She wants to know about exploring what happens next year and plans for catching up on learning and providing students with mental health services. Is summer school on your mind, Dr. Cole?

Cole: It is actually. We've already talked about even if school comes back into session that we might do an extended summer school, maybe in June, and then also a springboard summer school that would come to us in August. I think the, our biggest piece right now, and I think all three of us agree on this, is the mental health of our kids is of utmost on our minds. I know like Des Moines we have some challenging demographics, we have a lot of immigrant kids, a lot of refugee kids and I predict that some of my families are sitting home right now during this pandemic with one eye on their house and one eye watching out their window still wondering who is watching them, what is the negative rhetoric that surrounds them being in our community, which just adds another layer. And so I think summer school would provide both some mental health support as well as that content support that they're going to need.

Yepsen: Mike Beranek, Deborah reaches us on Twitter and asking for some advice about learning. So give us some advice from your 30 years in third grade teaching. What would you say to parents of teens who are resisting remote learning and remote assignments?

Beranek: Well, David, I worked with third graders for 30 years so teens are a little bit different than an eight or a nine year old. But the first thing I would encourage parents and guardians and anyone who has students at home just to make sure that those students are feeling loved and they are feeling good about what is happening and to listen to their concerns. And so if there is a hesitancy for wanting to do some work, sitting down and having a conversation and not getting into a tug of war so to speak and developing that relationship that can move to the next point. And then when those relationships are solid and kids are feeling good about what they need to do, stay in direct contact with the school and that school's educators because they may be able to provide some input, especially a school counselor. Going back to the previous question, the number of students to a school counselor ratio is woefully inadequate in our state. And so this again highlights the resources that we need for our public schools to provide an appropriate number of students per counselor. And so I'm hoping that this next legislative session we can explore that. And I also want to address summer school. I was just talking to a superintendent just this afternoon and they have already allocated a certain amount of money in their budget for summer school programming. With the advent of schools being closed there will be more opportunities to educate children over the summer, but those resources aren't available. And so hiring more teachers, hiring more associates will be difficult because that money is already budgeted. And so there could be a discussion at the state level on how to provide funds to ensure that more kids have an opportunity to attend summer school if they want to attend summer school. I don't think it should be mandated. But there will be a need for additional resources and so, those conversations need to take place.

Henderson: Dr. Ahart, this one goes to you. It comes from Therese in Des Moines. She wants to know, what are students going to do if they do not have a computer at home?

Ahart: In Des Moines what they will do is get one delivered to their home.

Henderson: How do you go about that as a parent or a student?

Ahart: Well, okay, so we are, we have been surveying our families and we have completed the survey process with our seniors and actually we had hundreds and hundreds of seniors show up at their high school, which one of my staff members described as it looked like people working at a nuclear power plant because we were following all of the CDC guidelines and keeping social distance and ensuring that we had personal protective equipment and so forth. But we distributed hundreds of computers today. Next Friday we will be distributing thousands of computers to our ninth, tenth and eleventh graders. And then the following Friday we will be distributing computers to all of our pre-K through eighth grade students. So surveys have been out, we time limit those surveys so if we have not heard back from a family within a certain window of time we began reaching out to those families first by telephone and by email to ensure we understand what the need in the home is. And then we prepare packages with a computer, power cord, a brief instruction sheet and we do have those translated into several different languages. And then in many cases if we're not hardwiring the Internet connection they will also have a device to connect them to the Internet.

Yepsen: Dr. Ahart, I want to follow up, ask you the question that Deborah asked earlier about parents of teens who are resisting remote learning. What advice do you have for parents? And Dr. Cole, I'd like to follow that up, let you go second. But, Dr. Ahart?

Ahart: Well, to be honest with you what we're really leaning on, who we're really leaning on here is our teachers. We're encouraging our families first to reach out to their student's teacher. Our teachers know our students and their families extremely well and our parents obviously know their children very well but they don't necessarily know them well in the instructional setting. And our teachers find, discover all sorts of little tricks of the trade to help engage students more effectively, they know what will direct them away from what we want to have happening and what will pull them back in. And so our teachers have been doing a wonderful job of reaching out to their families, even before we have this virtual connection developed and we've been distributing materials and we have things downloadable online. But what we're, the lynchpin, the basic building block of a school system is the teacher in a classroom with their students and that doesn't change even if physically they're not present in the same space. So I think that our families really need to, first of all, figure out what their situation is, what kind of time they can dedicate, and when they can dedicate that time because this is really an asynchronous learning environment that most of our students and staff aren't used to. But then to really not hesitate to reach out and ask questions that may seem like silly questions for a parent to ask but often times our teachers have figured that out.

Yepsen: Dr. Cole, same question. Any quick advice to parents?

Cole: I have actually been reading about how this pandemic has maybe been the hardest on our teenagers and what our teenagers need most right now is compassion, validation and they need us to be present. I think it's important, I saw a great visual this week from I think a principal in another state who took out a ruler and said, if this ruler represented K-12 education, each inch would represent one year in time and we have to remember that this is a quarter of an inch on the ruler. And so what I would tell parents is we are also relying on those teachers that have those super positive relationships with those kids that get them connected. But overall I would say, let's not make a half a foot out of a quarter of an inch. I think that's important for us to realize that our kids need so much more than content right now, and that they need a little grace and compassion.

Henderson: Rosa from Cedar Rapids asks this question. According to the Governor's current proclamation, schools may be reopening after this month is over. What if as a parent I choose to keep my child home out of concern for their safety for the entire year? What are my options in that situation? Dr. Ahart?

Ahart: That's an easy answer. In Des Moines we have announced that we're not bringing our staff and students back into school for the remainder of the year. We didn't make that decision lightly. But I'll tell you, when we talked with our best medical experts in the metro area here in Des Moines it became pretty evident pretty early on that it would be irresponsible to bring everybody back. So in Des Moines you won't need to bring your kids back for the remainder of the year.

Henderson: Mr. Beranek, you talk to schools all across the state, people who work in them. What would be your advice to this parent?

Beranek: Well, I would encourage that parent to talk with her medical professionals in her local area and also to talk with the school because, as I started out with, the number one issue is the health and safety of our communities and our students. And if a parent is feeling like that is not an environment which is safe for their children then I would strongly encourage them to seek advice from their community.

Yepsen: Mike Beranek, I have another question. What are we going to do about student teachers being able to finish their requirements for graduation? And how will that affect their future employment?

Beranek: Well, that was a question that I asked at the very beginning of this, Mr. Yepsen. We are focusing on helping those kids because we certainly don't want them to have to come back for a whole other semester which they had not planned on financially to do. And so I believe that the higher ed institutions are working through how to solve this. I know that some of the student teachers -- required to turn in content, turn in lesson plans to maintain relationships with students and report all of that and document that. So I have a lot of faith that our higher ed institutions will be very good about working with our student teachers.

Henderson: Dr. Cole, this comes from John on Facebook. What guidelines or suggestions do you have for parents who have a student who misses socializing with their friends and they're just frustrated that they don't have that social connection? I've seen this with a friend who has a preschooler. The preschooler was hugging statues in a neighbor's lawn because they miss that connection with another person.

Cole: I just don't know that there's a phenomenal answer for that. Certainly the answer isn't stop social distancing. I think I actually sent a video out to our seniors just this week and talked about our plans for graduation, prom, those big events that are important to them. And I reminded them that social distancing is a super difficult decision to make. It's a difficult thing for me to do and I'm an adult with presumably a fully formed brain, right. And so we're asking teenagers whose brains aren't fully formed yet to make these very adult decisions and it may seem unfair to them. So if it seems unfair to our high school seniors it must be horrendous for our four year olds, right, who truly do not understand. I think going back to validating what they say, loving them up as much as you can in your home and getting them as much time like this as they can is at least helpful.

Yepsen: Dr. Cole, I want to follow up a question. In Storm Lake you've got one of the most diverse districts in the state, yet still a smaller school district. How are racial disparities in Iowa's schools being highlighted by this pandemic? And what efforts can be made, if anything, to address them now?

Cole: So I think a lot, I think Dr. Ahart said it earlier, this is shining a spotlight on inequities across our state and I think race inequities is one of the biggest pieces that we'll see come out of this. Education is freedom for all of our kids and we have to make sure that this doesn't take that freedom away from our kids. In our case, we are using every single resource we possibly have at our fingertips to reach out to our families. We have some -- that we can use, we can use an interpreter via a phone line to reach out to families. Our biggest concern is that families don't always recognize that is even being said in the state as far as what the Governor's recommendations are. So we try to send out, her press conferences out in Spanish as often as we can. That's a predominant language for us. But even doing that we know we are not meeting the needs of all of our families.

Henderson: We have another question from Facebook, this one comes from James, and I'll take this one to Dr. Ahart. Physical interaction with the public is critical in the performing arts. What about the visual and performing arts and online learning? When you make up courses will it only be the core courses, reading, writing and arithmetic?

Ahart: No, actually one of the things that we're actually coordinating right now, so we know now that we are not going to be back in school for the remainder of the semester. And we did make an announcement in Des Moines two days prior to spring break that the first two days back to school would be cancelled. So we forewarned our staff that if there's anything that you think you need that you have in your rooms that you might need for a longer absence that you had originally planned please take that home with you. And we had the same message to our students. But one of the things that we're actually coordinating now which is actually a lot bigger lift than you might think is all of our orchestra and instrumental music students. So we're, in addition to distributing computer devices and Wi-Fi hot spots and the like, we're also distributing orchestra instruments and band instruments. So while it's not the same as being in the same room sitting in chairs right next to one another, our arts instructors and our students will continue to interact. So we do intend to deliver the full complement of courses that we currently offer but in a virtual setting. And as we discussed a little bit earlier I think offline what we haven't discovered a good solution for are those career and tech courses like auto body and aviation and welding and so forth where we just really can't recreate that in a virtual setting.

Yepsen: Mike Beranek, Marcy in Emmetsburg has concerns for the safety of IPERS. Will teachers still receive their money if they have retired? And will the teachers still be safe with their IPERS while they're working?

Beranek: You bet. That's something that we are focused on fully and we have been reassured by lots of folks in our state that IPERS won't be touched and that it will be secure and it will be there. So great question, Marcy, and yep it's going to be there for you.

Henderson: Mr. Beranek, wondering if your association will make a statement should the Governor decide that schools may reopen in May? Will teachers be reluctant to go back in the classroom?

Beranek: Well, not only teachers but I would assume any employee that works in a public school or the community as a whole. I think that any decision that needs to be made would be one that would be holistic and consider all of the potential harm that could be done by bringing kids back together. As for making a statement, I'm not sure I can answer that right now because we're just focusing on the next few weeks until April 30th and helping folks get through that. Something that has not been brought up but I think we need to have a conversation about is the hard work that our AEA's are doing to ensure that students who are special ed receive special ed services and have IEP's, they're working tremendous hard to ensure that those students IEP plans are being followed and that they are working in concert with the school district. However, if one school decides to stay closed and another opens the issues within that service boundary could be very hard for an AEA employee to work through. I think that we need to keep in the forefront, again, the inequities that could occur in all of our students, special ed students, students of color, diverse populations need to receive the same services. And so I just need to give a shout out to the folks that I know who are working at AEA's and helping to provide the services that those kids are required by law to get.

Henderson: We have a question from a caller from Carroll, Iowa. They ask, and this will go to Dr. Cole, if summer school would be mandatory would that require the teacher to receive more pay or would that be included under their current contract?

Cole: We would not make summer school mandatory, just like bringing kids back now we recognize that for some families that coming back to school by summer won't be an option for them and we want to honor the wishes of all of our families. So I do not see summer school becoming mandatory. We do pay our teachers extra to teach summer school in the summer, that is a practice that we've had going for a long time. As Mr. Beranek said earlier, that's in the budget, we're ready to do summer school and we hope we have that opportunity.

Yepsen: Dr. Ahart, a caller, Andrew from Des Moines. What is the plan for Des Moines Public Schools for staff when it comes to pay for the rest of the year and over the summer? I know this is a highly discussed topic in homes for families and workers who are concerned about their financial stability.

Ahart: Yeah, so as a couple of us referenced earlier, we're still following the budget plan that we had last July 1st when we engaged in the FY20 budgeting year. So all of our staff continue to be paid and that is going to continue. One of the things that we're challenged with, though, is if we do have an opportunity because there is no two ways about it despite the tremendous efforts of our teachers and building leaders and staff and associates, etc., etc. there's lost learning time and so we definitely want as soon as it is safe to bring our students and staff back together in physical presence we want to do that. And so we do have summer school programming but we would like to expand that dramatically and do as Dr. Cole had referenced earlier, perhaps have a jump start in starting school earlier in August to sort of recap this year and really have a lot of good momentum going into FY21. But at this point we don't have additional resources to expand what we had already been planning for summer school. And additionally, with what we anticipate to be not favorable numbers from the revenue estimating conference, we're not seeing a real rosy picture as far as supplemental state aid for FY22. So those are real challenges. But in terms of this particular question all of our staff will continue to be paid as originally planned.

Yepsen: Just so our viewers know, the revenue estimating conference is a state agency that estimates state tax revenues. They're obviously going to be down and that is what Dr. Ahart was talking about. Kay?

Henderson: Dr. Cole, you talked about reaching out to students and to parents. I'm wondering how you're helping teachers adjust to the new normal of distance learning? Are you suggesting they reach out to the institution where they got their teaching degree? Go to the AEA's? How are you helping your teachers gain the skill of controlling, if you will, a classroom of students online?

Cole: So I would say we've got a lot of ways that we're trying to help our teachers. When the first four weeks was announced and we knew, to the previous question, we knew we would be paying all of our staff, we reached out to them and challenged everyone in the district, so no matter what your role is, we challenged them to get a little bit better. We never wanted to give the impression to any of our community stakeholders that teachers were on a four week paid vacation, paid by tax dollars. So that is not what we did. We right away said to teachers let's spend some time and let's get a little bit better. So we've had teachers since the second week we were out engaging in new learning whether it be content, whether it be how do you teach online. We just gave lots and lots of lots of options and we allowed them to choose what was the most pressing for them. We have not yet required teachers to pull in their whole class at the same time. We know that can be a classroom management challenge when you're in physical proximity of kids let alone on a virtual setting. Many do but we don't require that.

Yepsen: We've got just a few minutes left and I want to go around the horn with each of you for your thoughts about this. I'll start with you, Mike Beranek, how is this crisis going to change education forever in the future?

Beranek: Well, Mr. Yepsen, that’s a great question. I think what this crisis is showing is the importance of our public schools and demonstrating the need for student/educator contact. It's one thing to provide content over the computer, over the Internet, and as we've all mentioned this evening it's that relationship. The one thing that I knew going into my first year of education is that I'll be required to do a reading lesson or a math lesson but it's that relationship that I establish with children that will be long lasting and will be with them for the rest of their life. And so I think what this is showing all of our communities is the importance of our public schools and that need to develop relationships that can carry them far into the future. And so it will change. As an educator I've had to learn new technology, just this evening all of us and it can be a challenge. And so not only as an educator trying to figure out how to do a virtual math lesson but they're trying to navigate the entire technology that is available to them. And so there's a lot to learn but I think it's good.

Yepsen: Dr. Ahart, just a few minutes left, but quickly, how do you see this crisis in America changing education in the future?

Ahart: A few things. I think number one, I think our state and federal governments need to own all of the responsibilities that they tacitly and directly count on our public education system to fulfill. We've delivered over 175,000 meals in the last two weeks, not to mention a whole host of other medical, social/emotional needs that we're fulfilling and that is because they count on us to do that every day. It's more difficult in this distance learning but clearly that is a responsibility that even though it's not in code is something that our society counts on. The second thing is equity, equity, equity. This situation is shining a very bright light on the differences and opportunities that students have largely by zip code and we need to take that very, very seriously. And three, there's many more but I'll end it here so I can give Dr. Cole a chance. But we need to be talking about Internet access as a basic utility and ensure that every single one of our citizens around the state has ready access and affordable access to high speed Internet.

Yepsen: Dr. Cole?

Cole: I would echo everything that has already been said. And then I would just end it with this has been a reminder to me that educators are champions of hope and hope is so important when having helping kids dream and become something that no one thought that they could be and that social interaction keeps that hope alive in ways that I don't even think we recognized before. And I see it in our senior class, people will say oh, that track meet isn't that big of a deal. Is prom really that big? What about graduation? I don't think any of those things are the things our kids are mourning about, I think it's the opportunity to say goodbye to one another.

Yepsen: And Dr. Cole, I have to use this opportunity to say goodbye to all of you. We're out of time. Appreciate you taking time out on a Friday evening to be with us. Thank you all.

Thank you very much.

Thank you.

Yepsen: And we’ll be back next week on Iowa Press, Friday night at 7:30 with a rebroadcast at 11:30 on Sunday morning. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


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