• warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.
  • warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.

High positivity rates, 100% return concern parents

Third-party option not really equitable education Solon parent and epidemiologist would have preferred a hybrid school model

SOLON– As a parent, teacher and public health epidemiologist, Kelly Baker is concerned about the Solon Community School District (SCSD) Return to Learn plan.
Solon schools opened for the year Aug. 31, with an estimated 95 percent of students attending in person.
It’s been difficult for numerous parents to decide whether to send students to school or to utilize a third-party, online-only option, she said.
The district’s plan has lacked a lot of detail, and while it’s still evolving, it’s not the hybrid model Baker would prefer.
In an informative recorded webinar for Lakeview Elementary, Baker learned there could be 17-20 students per class, with some high school classes having as many as 26 students.
“With our positivity rate, that’s way too many,” she said. “It’s almost inevitable that there’s going to be children who show up to class that are positive.”
Baker is an assistant professor in the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health, and while she’s spent most of her career with global infectious disease issues, she’s currently involved working on a COVID-19 research study.
“It’s very difficult for me to separate my feelings as a parent from my feelings as an expert in this field,” she noted.
No one wants to appear critical of the district, she said. School employees sacrificed much of their summer to develop the Return to Learn plan, the group worked hard and it continues to be refined.
But a substantial number of parents felt they had no choice but to send their students to school and don’t feel the administration has adequately addressed concerns, she added.
The district based its decision for 100 percent onsite instruction on a survey administered in early summer when case rates were low and it found parents wanted their kids back in school. A hybrid model was not considered an option because it mixes online and in-person instruction, she said, and it wasn’t believed many families would sign up for it. There also were concerns it would overload teachers.
It’s a fair argument, Baker noted. A lot of parent Facebook pages feature posts from families saying they don’t have the job flexibility or financial means to assist with online learning and are distressed about it.
Yet Johnson County had single-day positivity rates of 20-21 percent last week and over 30 percent Aug. 23, with a 14-day average of 21 percent by Aug. 29. The CDC and many states don’t recommend in-person classes with 5 percent positivity rates, she noted.
The district made the decision for 100 percent onsite learning based on months-old popular opinion not science, positivity rates and numbers of cases, Baker stated.
Online classes are likely coming, she suggested, in part because the community of Solon is not doing enough to help the district contain community spread.
The success of any school’s Return to Learn plan depends significantly on community behaviors, Baker said.
When some families in the community are not adhering to public health practices, it ultimately becomes a game of Whac-A-Mole as the school system battles to keep community spread out.
“What we’re seeing is that in communities like Solon all around the country where schools have already started opening, it’s like a domino effect,” she explained. “It’s now dozens of schools that have opened before Solon has, they have similar levels of community transmission as Solon, with Return to Learn plans maybe like Solon’s or maybe even better, and they’re still within the first week of school, having to quarantine entire classes or even shut the school down and transition to online-only learning.”
It’s a plausible hypothesis Solon’s rate is higher than communities like Iowa City (minus the University of Iowa) where mask-wearing is more prevalent, Baker said.
“There are enough people in Solon who are not taking public health recommendations seriously,” she observed. “It’s scientifically reasonable to assume that Solon has high rates compared to communities that are being a little more stringent.”
That’s why a hybrid model would be more effective in the fight against transmission, she said.
While Solon is taking some steps to reduce the number of classrooms interacting with each other, all students will be in the buildings at the same time.
The goal of any hybrid model is to break down the number of students that come in contact with one another to the smallest possible number, she said.
Smaller classes of 10-12 students attend school three days a week, then two days online, with strong cleaning measures on days when kids cycle between offsite and onsite, she said. Students only interact with their classroom members.
Cutting the number of students in buildings in half achieves better social distancing, she added.
Maintaining only 3-4 feet of distance in classroom settings is not useful, especially for younger students who will have a hard time at first abiding by public health measures, Baker commented. In lunchrooms, hallways, bathrooms and on the playground, children are bound to forget.
“Our job as parents and teachers should be creating an environment that lets kids fail and learn from their failures without serious repercussions,” she explained. “We need to be aiming for the highest standards, not the minimal acceptable, to allow kids to make mistakes without catching the virus.”
According to information compiled by a group of parents, Solon and Mid-Prairie are the only public school districts in or partially in Johnson County offering 100 percent on-site instruction and third-party online learning.
The other four– Clear Creek Amana, Iowa City, Lone Tree and West Liberty– include hybrid solutions in their Return to Learn plans.
Of the eight nearby public schools between 1,000 and 1,600 students in size, five are providing hybrid or district-provided online learning.
For kindergarten through eighth grade, SCSD will contract with Edmentum Inc., an online provider of learning programs featuring live certified Iowa teachers and an accredited curriculum aligned with state requirements.
Those at the high school level will receive pre-recorded online instruction through Apex Learning, a provider utilized by the district for credit recovery.
Because the Edmentum option is not based on the Solon curriculum, not taught by Solon teachers and provides zero face-to-face interaction, Baker said parents feel it creates inequity in access to the same public education. More parents might have opted into online instruction if it was provided by Solon teachers and with fellow classmates, she suggested.
Tricia Ball was lucky enough to have a family situation allowing her to enroll her children in online classes.
“My kids are old enough to use the program independently, and since I already work from home, I'll be there to supervise,” she explained. “I'm constantly worrying if going online is the right choice for my children, but as Johnson County's positivity rate continues to grow, I know we went with the best option.”
Ball is concerned her children will feel lonely and isolated from their peers.
“Learning that only 5 percent of the district chose this route, increases that fear even more,” she said.
“My kids agree that online school is the best plan for them, not because they fear getting sick, but they fear they will accidentally get someone else sick,” she noted. “I also know that by choosing to keep my kids home, that is two less children on the bus, and two less children in their school, which gives two people's worth of space for social distancing.”
She knows others may not feel safe sending their children to school, but cannot have a parent or guardian home during the day, or have children in kindergarten through fifth grade which requires a parent or guardian to take on the role of a teacher.
“I empathize with them, and only hope for the best,” Ball said. “We love being a part of Solon, and hope everyone in our district and community is able to stay healthy, but science points to that being a very low likelihood.”
Districts were required to file Return to Learn plans providing at least 50 percent of instruction in person by the state.
Gov. Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Public Health have come up with random levels for what’s considered acceptable for school districts to apply for all-online learning, Baker noted. Iowa’s approach has no bearing in science and is at odds with the less than 5 percent positivity rate for online learning national experts CDC and National Institutes of Health are recommending, she added.
“We seem to have things backwards,” she observed.
In other states, the pressure is on the community to do what is needed to achieve going back to school. Iowa seems to be in reaction mode instead of prevention mode, waiting for disaster to strike, she said.
Many districts have pushed back against the governor’s requirements, arguing for the safety of students and staff, but Solon has taken the safer route of ceding control to the state, Baker suggested. She believes the district should have followed the lead of the Iowa City district, which is starting the first two weeks of school online.
There are parents and teachers who are unhappy with that decision and don’t feel like they can express themselves, she said.
“In general, parents have not been involved in this return to learn process,” she said.
Parents need as much information as possible to make strategic decisions in the best interests of their children, as do school staff, she added. That includes the district’s plan for actively monitoring for cases, evaluating the effectiveness of protocols and communicating it transparently to parents.
Baker was in the middle of teaching when the pandemic struck, and experienced the chaos as instructors dealt with a continually changing landscape.
She knows it will be challenging for teachers to develop multiple plans with no certainty.
“I sympathize with them,” she said. “I know that teachers out there care passionately about their students and are going to do their best.”
She’s hopeful the district can be responsive to parents looking to make the best decision.
“It is a situation that is playing out across the country,” she observed.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed by Dr. Baker are her own, and should not be considered an official statement on behalf of the University of Iowa. Dr. Baker declares no financial conflict of interest in the publication of this story. Her other responsibilities related to COVID-19 include advising on the global pandemic response as a member of the National Academies of Medicine Board of Global Health and the COVID-19 Hygiene Hub.