DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said Tuesday night that she will ask lawmakers to immediately send her a bill to sign into law that would require schools to offer parents the option of having their children in classrooms full time despite continuing high levels of coronavirus throughout Iowa.
“The vast majority of our schools found a way to safely and responsibly reopen, all day, Monday through Friday. It’s past time that every district makes that happen,” she said. ”As one parent told me: ‘Options are good. But if some parents get the option to go 100% online, why don’t my kids get the option to be 100% in the classroom?’
Democrats criticized the idea as dangerous for teachers, students and staff and said the best way to get children back in school is to effectively end the still aggressive coronavirus spread in Iowa.
“The governor's failure to put a mask mandate of any type into place until November is part of the reason why things are so bad today,” said Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls. "The governor's refusal to follow the White House Coronavirus Task Force policy recommendations and the CDC guidelines are part of why the pandemic is so bad today."
Reynolds also wants open enrollment available in all school districts, creation of public charter schools and creation of education savings accounts for students to move to another school if their school is failing. These ideas also drew criticism from Democrats who claimed such requirements would drain resources from public schools.
Reynolds spoke in a joint legislative session at the Iowa Capitol but attendance was significantly reduced because most Democrats decided to view the speech remotely due to the Republican leaders’ choice to impose no mask requirement inside the Statehouse.
The speech was carried live on Iowa PBS television and via the internet.
Reynolds laid out a plan Tuesday for spending $450 million over the next five years to expand high-speed internet service across the state.
She said Iowa has the second lowest broadband speeds in the country and improvements have been discussed for too long.
“I’m done taking small steps and hoping for big change,” she said.
She also will ask lawmakers for $25 million to provide child care development block grants to promote the creation of more child care businesses in Iowa. She also proposes $3 million to encourage public-private partnerships that have led to opening of additional child care options.
“Let’s remove the obstacles to high-quality, affordable child care so that Iowa families can nurture their kids while parents maintain the maximum freedom to enter and remain in the workforce,” she said.
Reynolds will seek funding for mental health programs by proposing spending $15 million this year and another $15 million next year.
“While the virus threatened our physical wellbeing, the realities of last year placed unimaginable stress on so many Iowans. Seniors were isolated from friends and loved ones; kids were kept out of the classroom and away from the stability it provides; and thousands of Iowans had their livelihoods turned upside down," she said.
Those are the largest spending requests she made in her annual Condition of the State message to lawmakers, who began the 2021 legislative session in Des Moines on Monday.
She proposed a bill to target protesters who engage in confrontations with police, saying “if you riot or attack our men and women in uniform, you will be punished.” She said the bill she will propose also will ban racial profiling and other forms of disparate treatment.
Reynolds said she will ask the Legislature for $1 million to to create a program that aligns rural physicians with specialists, creating regional hubs that provide highly-skilled care closer to where patients are located. She said she'll also work with lawmakers to pass a bill improving emergency medical services across the state.
Reynolds called for a moment of silent in her speech to remember the Iowans who died of the coronavirus in the past year.
Her handling of the pandemic has been applauded by Republicans but criticized by others who believe she could have saved many lives by initiating broader mask requirements and more aggressive public mitigation measures.
Iowa has seen 4,222 people died of the the virus and the state’s death count is the 17th highest per capita in the United States. Iowa’s seven-day rolling positivity rate also is among the nation’s highest, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.
“We took a hit like everyone else, but we didn’t falter long. Because of conservative budgeting practices, Iowa’s diverse economy, the decision to keep over 80% of our businesses open, and the tenacity of our people, Iowa isn’t facing a massive budget shortfall like many states,” she said.
Reynolds said Iowa’s unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the nation and the business productivity is outpacing the nation.
She said nearly 100,000 Iowans, including our healthcare workers, have received their first dose, of a coronavirus vaccine and several thousand have now received their second. By the end of the week, everyone at the Iowa Veterans Home, our largest nursing facility in the state, will be vaccinated, she said.
She estimated that by Jan. 25, all 90,000 nursing-home residents and staff will have received the vaccine. She said wider distribution for more Iowans is imminent.