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Des Moines Schools Defy Governor’s Reopening Order Amid Coronavirus

The death of a longtime special education teacher, who fell ill after an out-of-state trip and died of coronavirus complications last week, before school started, further ratcheted up concerns among the district’s 5,000 employees. About 1,500 staff members have pre-existing medical conditions, according to a survey the district conducted this summer, and 34 percent are over the age of 50.

Mr. Ahart, the superintendent, said six bus drivers had quit this week over concerns about contracting the virus. And Joshua Brown, president of the local teachers’ union, said several teachers had inquired about how to resign if the district agrees to comply with the governor’s order.

“It’s scary as hell,” said Dave O’Connor, 58, a middle school social studies teacher who has high blood pressure and other health issues. He added, “I always knew that my government could march me off to war, but I didn’t know that they could march me into a situation that’s this unsafe.”

Many of the district’s school buildings are aging — the average is about 65 years old, officials said — with poor ventilation and crowded classrooms. High school classes often have about 40 students, Mr. Ahart said, and even at half capacity, students could not remain six feet apart. “It cannot be done.”

Dr. Jha at Brown suggested that the state should work with county health officials to try to lower the coronavirus caseload in the community, making it safer to open schools, rather than “trying to essentially push the county to do something that most public health experts would agree is not wise.”

Parents and students are divided over the district’s resistance. Erin Willey, 48, whose younger daughter is a junior in high school, said she thought the district was being overly combative, rather than trying to work with the state.

She said she agreed that high schools were crowded, but said she thought the district could find other buildings — either vacant ones it already owned, or ones it could rent — to spread the students out.

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