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EDITORIAL: Parents deserve better info on virus in schools
EDITORIAL

EDITORIAL: Parents deserve better info on virus in schools

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This editorial originally appeared in the Oct. 11 Des Moines Register.

Gov. Kim Reynolds required in-person instruction, but isn’t reporting virus cases in Iowa schools

Gathering and reporting information is critical in understanding transmission of the coronavirus and the long-term impact of reopening.

Like everyone else, Gov. Kim Reynolds wants life to get back to normal. But a governor cannot just make that happen during an infectious disease pandemic that has so far killed more than 200,000 Americans. Many people are rightly reluctant to be physically close to others.

Reynolds cannot force Iowans to venture into hair salons, eat in restaurants or attend football games. She cannot require bars or child care centers or other businesses to be open.

So she focused on what she can control: K-12 schools. She insisted they reopen for in-person learning, which forces schools to welcome kids together in climate-controlled buildings.

What Reynolds apparently doesn’t want: Iowans to understand the consequences of that.

Her administration is not reporting virus outbreaks in schools or requiring districts to report them to the state. That leaves all of us, including parents, in the dark.

Maybe your child’s school will quarantine an entire classroom or a teacher will test positive or there will be an outbreak on a sports team. Perhaps you’ll receive a letter from a principal or read about an isolated situation in the news. Or maybe you won’t find out at all.

In the shameful absence of information from the government, the private sector stepped up.

The Iowa State Education Association partnered with Iowa COVID-19 Tracker to create a database to gather and report school positive tests and exposures to positive people.

This is no easy task, and it is made possible by Sara Willette, an Ames woman who has autism, says she is fluent in seven languages “including math,” and spends about 15 hours a day working with Iowa’s COVID-19 data.

In March, Willette — who is at high risk of complications from COVID-19 — took a personal interest in the virus. She started tracking all Iowa cases using state data. She built her own spreadsheets, databases and maps.

When it eventually became clear the state wasn’t going to report cases in schools, she partnered with the teachers union. She uses state data and receives information about positive cases reported to her directly by schools and individuals.

Willette is the reason Iowans know more than 100 Iowa schools reported cases of COVID-19 within weeks of resuming in-person instruction.

“We’ve gotten progressively less information from the state as we’ve gone into the pandemic,” she told a Register editorial writer. “It’s baffling because when I think about any other type of disaster or emergency, our government has been historically very good of notifying and keeping people aware of any changes.”

Gathering and reporting information is critical to tracking spread of the virus, understanding transmission and knowing the long-term impact of reopening schools.

“In my mind, with more than 1,300 Iowans dead so far, this is a public emergency,” Willette said. “As a citizen scientist, I want to understand what the spread is doing.”

And this citizen scientist is basically working the equivalent of two full-time jobs on this. She also has six Iowa State students helping her.

She worked for free during the first few months of the pandemic. Now she estimates she receives $900 per month from “wonderful Patreon supporters,” and the ISEA contract provides some compensation. Patreon is a membership and payment platform for artists, writers and other creators.

She said she would love to be able to help the state visualize positive cases for the public, but the state doesn’t seem to want her help.

Well, the state needs all the help it can get. And so does Reynolds.

More Iowans now disapprove than approve of the governor’s handling of this pandemic. A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll last month found 44% of Iowans say they approve, a 15 percentage-point drop since June’s Iowa Poll.

Many Iowans are frustrated that Reynolds has refused to mandate masks. And has ignored advice from many public health experts. And held news conferences that spend time featuring feel-good stories from supporters. And bullied school officials.

Now she’s failing to report detailed information about positive virus tests in the very schools she insisted reopen. That isn’t going to help her approval rating — or help the rest of us feel safe and normal.

This editorial was written by the editors of Bloomberg Opinion.

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