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State lawmakers to take up bill that would require districts offer in-person learning

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WATERLOO, Iowa (KWWL) - Eastern Iowa families could soon be able to send their kids to school in-person 100% of the time. Governor Reynolds and Republican state lawmakers are pushing legislation that would require every school district in the state to offer families that choice.

"We need to do everything we can to get those kids back in school, in a classroom where they learn best," Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said.

The legislation is a top priority for Republicans in this legislative session.

RELATED: COVID-19, school choice hang over Iowa lawmakers as they gavel in Spring legislative session

They point to studies that have shown school-aged kids are at a lower risk for contracting the virus. Whitver, who has three kids himself, said his biggest concern is students falling behind while learning remotely.

"We cannot afford as a state, as a society, to let an entire generation of kids fall behind, but that is what we see across the state in many schools," Whitver said. "There are a lot of schools that have been in person the entire year, but there are schools that are completely failing the students of Iowa."

State Sen. Eric Giddens, D-Waterloo, said he believes the best for kids to learn is in the classroom, but it needs to be done safely. Giddens said he worries the new bill takes the decision-making power out of school leader's hands.

"We should just allow school districts to do what's in the best interest of the students, staff and the community given the local circumstances," Giddens said. "This is not something the state should be mandating on on school districts because there is no such thing as a one size fits all strategy for all school districts in the state."

On February 1st, Waterloo High School students will return to the classroom full-time. Since August, students have been alternating every other school day between virtual and in-person classes.

"COVID is the ever apparent issue that we are trying to address, but naturally, not too long in our near future, we are going to be talking about education loss," Dr. Kingsley Botchway, Waterloo schools' head of Human Resources said. "We are not trying to throw health and safety off the table, but we want to make sure that we are paying attention to the fact that retention is a real possibility."

While there is a higher chance for transmission among high school students, Botchway said the virus spread within district buildings is limited. Transmission is primarily occurring outside of school.

As high schools get ready to return to the classroom, the district is stepping up cleaning routines, putting dividers up in lunch and classroom and ramping up enforcement of mask-wearing.

If coronavirus cases, the bill would allow school districts to apply for waivers to go fully online. In addition to the positivity rate and absentee rate, the Iowa Department of Education will also look at factors like the number of teachers quarantines and how many substitute teachers and school bus drivers are available at a given time.

State lawmakers in the house and senate are scheduled to debate the in-person learning legislation next week.

In addition to the in-person learning legislation, there are a handful of other public school-related bills.

Senate Study Bill 1065 is an omnibus bill that tackles several issues, including school vouchers, charter schools, and removing voluntary diversity plans for some larger school districts.

"We need to be supporting our public school districts and not diverting public funds for other purposes," Giddens said. "We need more support in the school districts and not less."

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Daniel Perreault

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