Students will be back in the classroom full-time in Clear Lake this fall.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, administrative decisions and public feedback, teachers have spent their summer pushing on through it all in an effort to prepare for the upcoming school year.
Teachers from Newman Catholic and Mason City, opened up about how they’ve prepared.
The Newman Catholic school district is operating in a green, yellow, red and orange system, depending on what level of concern there is for COVID-19 in the district. Right now, the district is green and cleared for a 100% return to in-person learning.
Students will be back in the classroom full-time in Clear Lake this fall.
“I’m excited for school to start and I have a lot of faith in people that we’re going to be able to make it work,” says Tom Dunn, a high school social studies teacher and softball coach at Newman Catholic.
Outside of teaching and the everyday tasks of working in a classroom with students, teachers will have more on their plate to deal with. Most districts are requiring teachers to take extra steps to sanitize before, during and after students leave. Teachers will also have to teach students about proper hygiene while enforcing mask usage.
Dunn has dealt with COVID-19 much sooner than some other teachers since he coached softball this summer. He sanitized game balls, equipment and the dugouts often, so the extra weight of doing more work outside of teaching doesn’t bug him.
“The classroom, every time after class I’ll sanitize the desks and door-handles and everything,” Dunn said. “I guess I’m not as worried as some because I saw it work this summer. Yes, it’s going to require some more work, but I’m not concerned about that.”
Dunn says there is no fool-proof plan and that administrators are doing the best they can to mitigate the risks for students and staff. He just hopes he can see his students in-person all fall.
“I guess what I would say is successful is that if we can find a way, whether it’s in the classroom or a blended system, covering the majority of the material that we would cover in a normal year,” Dunn said. “There’s stuff that you need to know and there’s stuff that’s fun to know. This could be a year where it’s more of the stuff you need to know and not quite as much of the fun stuff.”
Newman Catholic has a little piece of history and nature that some might consider the campus’ hidden gem.
Regardless of what’s being taught, not all educators across the nation are as confident that things will go smoothly. Some teachers are concerned with what happens if they catch COVID-19 or are exposed to a student who catch the virus.
Kerri Foley, a high school math teacher at Mason City, is confident that the district is doing everything it can to make things safe for students and staff when they return. She does hope her district requires masks, though.
“I have three small children, I have elderly parents,” Foley said. “I think you have to have a healthy concern just because of how unpredictable every single individual’s reaction to this virus. We’ve played it safe.”
In Gov. Kim Reynolds' guidance for school districts, announced on Thursday, schools won’t be able to switch to full-time online learning unless the school district has more than 10 percent of students absent due to COVID-19, or a 20 percent positive test rate of all counties the district serves.
The Iowa State Education Association, a union that represents Iowa's educators, strongly disagreed with the guidance.
“Most importantly we are not just talking about numbers as we look at this decision,” President Mike Beranek said. “We are talking about children’s lives and the lives of the educators, school employees and the families who are affected.”
Here's how some area school districts are planning on returning to school this fall.
Foley wishes there was more teacher input in decisions made by higher-ups.
“I think moving forward, and making decisions, it’s sometimes best to have actual teacher perspectives,” Foley said. “I think that’s something that’s been missing ... from the whole conversation across the country, is the teacher’s voice saying that we know what the classroom is like and what we are capable of.”
Foley made it clear that she’s not envious of the decisions that administrators have to make this summer. She supports the Mason City administration and is looking forward to hearing what the finished version of the return-to-learn plan looks like.
For now, she has many of the same questions that parents and guardians have.
“How are we going to meet the safety needs as well as the educational needs all at the same time?” Foley said. “It’s kind of like, something’s got to give from both aspects. You have to try to be as safe as possible while also trying to give the best instruction that you can.”
Mason City Schools gave an update on the return-to-learn plans for this upcoming fall at Monday night's school board meeting.
As they await Gov. Kim Reynolds’ promised executive order on restoring felon voting rights, key Iowa legislators doubt she’ll have the last word on the issue.
“We’re planning to make sure that this is not the end of the conversation,” said Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, a Des Moines Democrat who has met with the Republican governor on the matter.
He’s encouraged by Reynolds’ willingness to take action, but like others — both Democrats and Republicans — Abdul-Samad expects lawmakers will take another crack at advancing a felon voting rights restoration measure for the Iowa Constitution.
“An executive order would be for now, but there’s been a push for something more permanent in regards to adding the language to our constitution,” added Senate Judiciary Chairman Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale.
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His counterpart across the rotunda, House Judiciary Chairman Steve Holt, R-Denison, agreed that an executive order will not settle the issue because without a constitutional amendment, a future governor could rescind Reynolds’ order.
“I would imagine that those who want felon voting rights restored to folks once they’ve served their time would want that in the constitution,” he said.
As it is now, released felons can individually petition the governor. Reynolds has said no one person should have that power, and called for a state constitutional amendment to guide the process. But lawmakers have disagreed on which felons would be eligible and when, so Reynolds said she will sign her own directive.
Fifteen years ago, Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order allowing felons to vote after being released. About 115,000 felons regained voting rights as a result.
One day after succeeding Vilsack, then-Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, rescinded the order and replaced it with an appeal process.
Over the next five years, fewer than 100 felons regained the right.
For the past two years, Reynolds, who has restored voting rights for 1,129 people since taking office in 2017, has been calling for a state constitutional amendment to make the process automatic and permanent.
After that effort stalled in the final days of the Iowa Legislature’s 2020 session, Reynolds said she would take action herself.
At that time, she was meeting with Abdul-Samad and representatives of Black Lives Matter and the NAACP. It was in the second of those meetings, he said, “she told me she was going to do it by late summer, early fall.”
“And I believe she is going to do it,” Abdul-Samad added.
Since then, Reynolds has been guarded in her comments about the content of the order. Speaking earlier this month at The Family Leader leadership conference, Reynolds again committed to using an executive order to end Iowa’s distinction as the last state in the country to either not revoke the rights or to have an automatic process for restoring them.
“When someone completes their sentence, they should be able to vote again,” Reynolds said. “The right to vote is the cornerstone of being a part of society and being heard, and really successfully reentering society.”
She talked about the conversations she’s had with Iowans who have applied to have their voting rights restored.
“The stories that they share warm my heart,” she said. “From the pride of being able to cast a vote again, to wanting to share their personal story of redemption and finding God, these are people sorry for their crimes, and they’re looking to turn their lives around. And I believe I, like most of you, that they deserve a second chance.”
Legislators say they have not had conversations with the governor about the order since the end of the legislative session in mid-June.
Zaun is one of those who had discussed the issue with Reynolds, but he declined to discuss their conversation.
“I do have a sense of what she communicated to me and I do approve of what she’s doing,” he said. “I’m not trying to not tell you something, but based on what she told me, I think that it’s something that I can live with.”
Similarly, Holt isn’t surprised that the governor has reached out to him because “I know from conversations with her staff that our thought processes are similar on this.”
However, lawmakers are not of one mind on the issue. Not all of them believe every felon who completes his or her sentence should get voting rights restored.
“I think it’s absurd to give rapists and child abusers who committed a felony their voting rights back,” said House State Government Chairman Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton.
Kaufmann floor managed Senate File 2348, which Reynolds called “a sensible compromise” when she signed it. Under the bill that is not in effect yet, those convicted of murder, child endangerment resulting in the death of a minor, serious sex offenses or named on the sex offender registry, or first-degree election misconduct would not be eligible to have their voting rights restored.
That bill would be effective only if a constitutional amendment on felon voting rights is ratified by 2023 by voters. It passed 37-11 with Democrats and Republicans on both sides in the Senate, but 51-45 on a party-line vote in the House.
Although not all legislators agree with Kaufmann, a bigger sticking point may be how they define completion of a sentence.
To some, that means completing a prison term and parole. To others, completion means serving the time, including probation and parole, and also paying restitution to a victim or victim’s family.
Abdul-Samad asked the governor not to require that restitution be completed before a felon is eligible to regain the right to vote.
“We have no problem looking at a payment plan, but we don’t want the voting rights contingent on having to pay that off,” he said.
If a restitution payment plan is set up, “we could do it just like a driver’s license,” Abdul-Samad said. “If you don’t fulfill certain conditions of the driver’s license, then they’re suspended until you get straight with that.”
The discussion still could go in another direction, Holt speculated.
For the most part, the understanding has been that if voters ratify a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights, lawmakers would enact legislation, such as SF 2348, establishing eligibility and requirements. However, Holt sees a “growing concern” among his colleagues that the law could be changed by a future Legislature. Some of them believe the definition of completion of a sentence and prohibition on murders and rapists should be a constitutional amendment.
“I’ve heard from a lot of constituents who don’t think it’s a great idea to automatically restore voting rights to particular types of felons,” Holt said. “So I actually think there’s more discussion going go the other way in the years to come.
“I certainly don’t think the discussions is over,” he added.
Reynolds said as much at The Family Leader.
“I hope you’ll continue to help me push for a permanent solution,” she said. “In the meantime, I will be signing an executive order before Election Day that uses my constitutional clemency power to address this issue in the short term.”