Superintendent Officially Reprimanded for Refusing Return to In-Person Classes in 2020

The superintendent of an Iowa school district was issued a letter of reprimand for refusing to heed Governor Kim Reynolds' 2020 order for schools to offer in-person classes, the Associated Press reported.

Des Moines Superintendent Thomas Ahart, who didn't comply with the order because of a surge in coronavirus cases at the time, said he was "pleased" the issue was settled.

Iowa's Board of Educational Examiners on Wednesday approved a judge's June ruling that Ahart violated the law in his resistance to providing in-person learning, the AP said. The judge rejected a state request to put Ahart through 15 hours of ethics training but approved the letter of reprimand, which will be added to his permanent licensure file.

"My focus has been and remains on the real work to be done for our students in Des Moines," Ahart told the AP. "From making up for last year's interruptions to learning, to preparing for a new school year as the cloud of COVID grows once again, to simply fulfilling our mission to support our more than 32,000 students grow and succeed."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds
An Iowa superintendent was issued a reprimand Wednesday for refusing to follow Governor Kim Reynolds' order from 2020 to offer in-person schooling options. Above, Reynolds speaks at a campaign event for Senate candidate Joni Ernst on October 31, 2020, in Davenport, Iowa. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The complaints stemmed from the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year, when Reynolds ordered that schools provide students with in-person learning at least half the time, arguing that the risks of being infected with the coronavirus were outweighed by the need to give parents and students the choice to go to school.

Throughout the pandemic, the Republican governor has repeatedly pushed to reduce or end restrictions, saying she needed to balance public health measures with efforts to invigorate the state's economy and ensure personal freedoms.

The virus has killed more than 6,100 Iowans.

For the first two weeks of the school year, the Des Moines district violated the order until it gave students the options of hybrid or all virtual learning. Board members were concerned that the district's aging schools didn't offer enough space or air-filtering capabilities to make in-classroom learning safe for students and teachers.

That delay led to complaints filed with the education board, a panel appointed by the governor. The board found that Ahart violated the law and gave him the option of surrendering his license or agreeing to a lesser sanction.

Ahart appealed the decision, saying he only gave the Des Moines school board options and then carried out its directives. Board members supported Ahart and said it wasn't fair to punish him for the board's decisions.

"Trying to save the lives of Iowans, during a period unlike anything any one of us has ever experienced, should not be met with an attack on Dr. Ahart's career," the board said in a statement at the time.

Administrative Law Judge David Lindgren acknowledged Ahart's concern for student and staff safety, and his efforts to give the school board options. But he said the superintendent still can't break the law. Under the circumstances, though, Lindgren called for the least serious punishment and ordered the letter of reprimand.

Although the complaints against Ahart have been resolved, his future with the district is unclear. The school board in May voted 4-3 against an extension of Ahart's contract, which runs through June 2023.

School board Chairwoman Dwana Bradley didn't respond to an email seeking comment about the resolution of the complaint and whether Ahart's contract would be extended.

Reynolds' spokesman, Pat Garrett, said the governor declined to comment on the matter.

Gov. Kim Reynolds at Rally
President Donald Trump greets Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds during a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on October 9, 2018. Scott Olson/Getty Images