January 25, 2021

NCSD ‘Return to Learn’ plan passes

Cook shares her worries about reopening schools, staff launch website to help families with questions

School board members have accepted the “Return to Learn” plan created by administrators of the Newton Community School District and their subcommittees who fleshed out some of the finer details. However, there was one board member who didn’t feel comfortable voting for the plan, leading to a 6-1 outcome.

Donna Cook — the longest serving member of the current NCSD Board of Education roster — still wanted to voice her concerns about schools reopening during a pandemic, especially when case numbers in Iowa continue to trend upward. She also commended the district’s work for creating a plan.

"On the other hand, in my mind, I see a life-threatening illness that I just don't think I'm ready to put people at risk for — teachers or students," Cook said. "Maybe if we have another three months. I'm not discounting your planning at all. I understand you're following what the state is saying.

“But in good conscience, I’m not comfortable with it yet.”

Regardless of her objections, the school board’s majority vote secured the plan’s approval. The district can now apply the plan and prepare for the upcoming school year. The first day of school for Newton students is Aug. 25. Students will have four days of on-site learning and one day of remote learning.

At this point, Cook is not sure what would make her more comfortable. Perhaps, she said, if the community did not have “numbers surging.” As of Wednesday, July 29, about 4,372 people in Jasper County had been tested for COVID-19; 439 of which have tested positive, 324 recovered and 24 died from the virus.

Cook also referenced the recent COVID-19-related deaths at Newton Health Care Center. Based on the company’s website, about seven people in the long-term care facility have died. Cook claimed students from other, more populated states have died from COVID-19.

“I just can’t live with that,” Cook said. “I don’t want to put anybody at risk. I appreciate that we (have) concerns about social distancing and about substitutes. I think that’s going to be a real difficult area; the whole impact on instructional time with all of these constraints.

“I’m hearing a lot of ‘as much as possible.’ But we can mitigate as much as possible but it’s still not safe in my view.”

Much of what was shared at the Monday, July 27, school board meeting was a rehash of information from a past town hall, in which subcommittee heads provided updated reports on social emotional needs of students, health and safety procedures and the introduction of a website to help families.

Administrators launched this Google site on Tuesday, July 28, which can be reached at https://sites.google.com/newton.k12.ia.us/newtonreturntolearn/home. The site has extensive details regarding on-site and hybrid learning, remote learning, health and safety, transportation, equity, food services, etc.

NCSD Superintendent Tom Messinger said the last part of the plan — knowing when to close a building or the district in the event of an outbreak or quarantine — is something administrators cannot fully develop yet because they need further guidance from the state. For now, that remains a local decision.

Messinger said the quarantine period will look different for elementary and secondary education students. Administrators are being told that if a child in third grade tests positive everybody from that classroom, including the adults, gets quarantined for 14 days. Secondary campuses makes things more complicated.

“If (a high schooler) is in ninth-grade English — and you have second period algebra, third period biology and so on and so forth — if you have a positive case ... now every classroom you’ve been in and all of those staff members have the same 14-day quarantine,” Messinger said.

So it is possible that two positive cases of COVID-19 at the high school level can make force the district to cease operations at that building.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com