Rita Hart has spent a majority of her adult life in the education sector, so when she speaks to concerned citizens about schools, she feels their pain.
Hart, a Democrat from Wheatland who is running against Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks for the seat of retiring U.S. representative Dave Loebsack in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, addressed issues with four potential constituents in the education field during a virtual roundtable Thursday.
One of those taking part in the discussion was Ottumwa’s Melinda Jones, who has taught in the school district for 11 years, mostly as an English Language Learner teacher. Jones expressed concern about the uncertainty and lack of guidance at the state and federal levels.
“With young kids, they can’t stay away from each other in the best of times. They want to be with their friends, but I think masks need to be required for all,” she said. “I think that’s the only way you can safely reopen. We have 25 in a kindergarten classroom, and that makes it even more of a challenge.”
Hart said returning to school is a fine line and “such a challenge to do it right.”
“There is so much on the line. It’s on everyone’s mind,” she said. “I’ve found that when we face a challenge, we do it in a collaborative way. You listen to those most affected by the problem.”
One of the other participants in the discussion was Tara Shochet, who resides in the Iowa City school district. That district had approved an all-online education plan until Gov. Kim Reynolds overruled it Friday and said schools would reopen face-to-face next month unless there were certain requirements met.
“When we decided to go fully online, it was a painful decision and not something we took lightly,” she said. “We’d had big spikes in COVID-19, and we did it for the health and safety of our students and staff.
“But I was very frustrated with the governor,” Shochet said. “We’ve been transparent with everyone and sought feedback from parents. We’d worked diligently to put the plan in place, and now it’s back to the drawing board.”
Hart, who served in the state senate, sympathized with Shochet.
“It’s amazing to think how many pieces of legislation come through with no direct involvement from the people it affects,” she said. “I also was very disappointed because there is no clear direction. Now, people are like, ‘Well, we just have to get this done.’ It would help to have that direction.”
Molly Bergfeld, a school board member in the North Scott school district, said preparations began in March when the school was focused on feeding children and paying staff. Now, the challenge is even greater.
“We’ve continually had to adjust our plan, but we have strong leaders and staff,” she said. “The collaboration has to be required, and we have people who are committed to that. This week we’re surveying parents to see if they want an online option or come back in person, so we’re putting the final touches on our plan.”
Dianne Prichard, a retired teacher in the Clinton County area, has been making masks for Central DeWitt school district.
“We had started a Facebook group, and people just volunteered,” Prichard said. “We have people who wash the fabric, purchase the fabric, cut elastic, etc. We’re in the process of making 4,000 of them for Central DeWitt, but as a teacher I would get stuff shoved down my throat, so we gave the teachers buy-in on what they wanted.
“We know we’re saving lives,” she said. “We know people will die, but we’re doing what we can to help. I like to look at the positive side.”
Jones expressed her concern about the unpredictability of the new school year.
“Someone asked me how my summer was going, and I said none of this has felt like summer,” she said. “Some of the decisions we made in June with a former superintendent now have to be looked at again with a new one. I’ve had a lot of calls about just going back to school the way we left it in March, and that is concerning.
“Everyone wants to go back,” Jones said. “But no one knows what it will look like.”
Hart gave a final thought to her guests.
“If the communities are healthier, then it’s more likely there will be success with school,” she said. “We’re all in it together, but you have to reduce the spread of the disease. The only way to get through this is to do our part.”