Despite being set to receive approximately equal amounts of the coronavirus vaccine, Des Moines’ private parochial schools will be able to vaccinate their entire staffs while public schools in the metro area will only be able to do the same for about a tenth of their employees. Meanwhile, on-site classrooms are on the verge of doubling in size thanks to a bill signed last Friday by Governor Kim Reynolds requiring schools to offer fully in-person learning options.
Three days later, Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines announced that by this Friday, all of the teachers and staff it employs will be able to receive the first of two vaccine doses. The vaccines will be administered through a clinic by UnityPoint Health, the state’s largest hospital and healthcare services network.
“Our hope is that all our teachers and staff choose to be vaccinated because this is an important step in protecting the health and safety of our community,” said Dowling spokesperson Tara Nelson, who acknowledged that the clinic would not be compulsory.
“We are still in the process of determining how many employees will be receiving the vaccine,” Nelson said. “It will be available to all faculty and staff members from DCHS and the parochial schools in the Des Moines metro.” There are 17 parochial schools in the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines that employ 457 full-time and 34 part-time teachers, according to figures published on the diocese’s website.
This stands in stark contrast to the plan currently underway to vaccinate Des Moines Public Schools employees, who work for one of the state’s largest districts. According to DMPS spokesperson Philip Roeder, a clinic provided by MercyOne Iowa will be held on Saturday that’s expected to provide an initial vaccination round (followed by a second round in three weeks) for 500 employees, or just ten percent of the the school system’s 5,000 employees.
Roeder noted that approximately 150 staff members had already made arrangements on their own to be vaccinated. He also said that these clinics will be limited by the availability of the vaccine in a state whose struggles to effectively distribute it have been well publicized.
This means DMPS will be forced to drop its current hybrid learning model, which has included virtual classes to help facilitate social distancing, as a result of the new in-person requirements and bring teachers back into the classroom at a time when only a small number of them are likely to have received just their first of the two necessary vaccine doses. (The initial dose does provide some protection against COVID-19, according to current research.) Although a completely virtual learning option also remains available to parents, the district expects class sizes to double.
“With the increase in class sizes, the recommendations for social distancing will not be able to be met in classrooms,” DMPS said in a notice published on its website explaining how to navigate the new law. “It will be encouraged whenever possible, but it cannot be guaranteed or enforced throughout the school day. The same is true on school buses; face masks will be required but social distancing will not always be possible.”
Meanwhile, Dowling and the metro’s other parochial schools, which have maintained in-person learning, will have fully vaccinated staffs long before DMPS gets close to administering vaccines for even half its staff if the scheduled rates of administration hold.
Along with the compulsory in-person teaching law, the Republican-controlled state Senate also passed a bill that would establish taxpayer-funded scholarships to fund private school tuitions for students in certain public school districts. That legislation awaits approval from the Iowa House, which, like the Senate, is dominated by Republicans.
“The [Polk County] Health Department is not offering this service because we do not have the capability to do so,” spokesperson Nola Davis said. “Each location that we allocate vaccine to can administer their doses as they wish as long as they stay within the phases.”
Davis added: “The Health Department has told all schools that they are free to contact occupational health and pharmacies for on-site clinics and that the providers can use their vaccine allocations however they choose. However, vaccine supply is very limited and there is no guarantee that the providers will be able to accommodate a school’s request.”
In a statement to the Polk County Board of Supervisors regarding Dowling’s partnership with UnityPoint Health for its vaccination clinic, county health director Helen Eddy said, “Their decision to allocate those vaccines and how they use those vaccines is their decision.”
A UnityPoint spokesperson said that although Dowling is set to be fully vaccinated first, there “will be tentative dates for other school districts as vaccine supply allows.”
The West Des Moines public school district did not immediately respond to a request for comment about its vaccination plans, which are separate from those of DMPS.