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Right now, the recommendation by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds' four-week shutdown of schools would put students back in schools on April 13. However, Pella Schools Superintendent Greg Ebeling said Friday he isn't confident schools will resume this school year.

"We actually assume that this will probably be the whole rest of the year," he told board members Friday in an emergency meeting. "With the way that the number of COVID cases are starting to escalate ... that we will be surprised if we re-open this year at all. That's my gut feeling about it, we don't know that yet. So, we still have hopes that we could come back to school this year, but we're not assuming we will."

Reynolds recommended last week that schools be closed for a four-week period due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Iowa Legislature, before suspending their session, did give Reynolds the authority to forgive the time schools are missing to avoid a large amount of makeup days going forward. That authority only covers the first four week period she has recommended there be no school.

The Pella Community School Board approved continuing pay for hourly support staff during Friday's emergency meeting, through April 12. They will remain at home, likely not working, Ebeling said. The cost of this group of employees to the district is about $330,000 per month.

The individuals would remain on call, but "not very many of our people are here." Ebeling said the foodservice staff is the exception, given the school is continuing to provide meals to students during the pause.

Important in the discussion, Ebeling said, is to keep the staff on Pella's payroll for continuity's sake to prevent the employees from looking at other options if the district instead decided to lay those employees off.

"What we're trying to do is keep some continuity amongst the masses of our employees," Ebeling said. "Yes, we could save that money if we laid them off — and that might be something we have to consider in the future depending on how long this goes. ... Right now, we don't think it's critical that we do that [layoffs] but that doesn't mean that couldn't happen in the future."

School Board President Joan Corbin echoed those thoughts.

"If we have the money budgeted," she said, "and it's not a burden, ... I would overwhelmingly support passing this because I think it speaks to our caring for those employees during this period of time."

Teachers and administrators will continue to have "continuity of services" as well. Ebeling says both pools continue to work, with teachers providing online options for students. Those options, however, are not required for students to partake in per the Department of Education.

Per the contract, these payments are already occurring and the board's approval essentially authorizing carrying pay for teachers and administrators as normal.

"Their salaries are divided out over 12 months so we would just recommend continuing that process — no changes," Ebeling said. "Teachers and administrators obviously continue to work, they're a little bit different than hourly employees. Teachers are going to be providing some educational opportunities for students."

The district's teachers are putting together online learning options. However, the Iowa Department of Education's guidelines doesn't allow for that learning to be mandated. Additional challenges, Ebeling said, is that the district doesn't provide 1-to-1 laptops for students in grades K-3.

"We want to offer options. We think we're going to have students that are going to want to be engaged, they're going to be looking for things to do. ... Kids need things to occupy their brains besides just YouTube videos."

The staff will work in the next week to find ways to offer lessons for students, with items available by Monday, March 30.

"We're planning like this is long-term for us," Ebeling said. "That this going to go all the way through the end of a typical school year. We're hoping it doesn't, and we hope we're all surprised and back because that will make us all really happy because we won't be socially isolating anymore."

School board member Annette Smith, who has young children, said she hopes the district will even find tools to allow children to socially engage with one another digitally.

"It does create a lot of anxiety when we talk about those little ones and how we can keep them going forward especially with their reading and everything, too," Smith said.

The school board is scheduled to meet again Monday in a regular meeting. That meeting, like the emergency meeting they held Friday, will be conducted digitally. Members of the public will be able to attend the meeting online, via a Google Hangout that will be published with the school board's agenda on the Pella website. Additionally, Ebeling said, members of the public will be able to attend in person and watch the meeting from the normal board room.

Kyle Ocker is the regional editor of the Centerville Daily Iowegian, Knoxville Journal-Express, Pella Chronicle and Oskaloosa Herald. He can be reached at kocker@dailyiowegian.com.

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