Merrill Minute

July 31, 2020

UPDATED - A Message From Dr. Ahart


Dear Friends,

As soon as Des Moines Public Schools transitioned to distance learning to finish last school year, we shifted our focus to how to safely begin 2020-21. Like school districts across the state, we spent thousands of hours developing a plan - according to the guidelines issued by the State of Iowa - on how to resume school in the midst of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. The development of this plan also reflected input from more than 80% of our families. While everyone wants a day when we can resume school as we have for the past one hundred years, that is simply an unsafe option. For DMPS, we prepared a plan - again, according to the guidelines issued by the State of Iowa - that provided our families with a choice between an all-virtual learning model and a hybrid model, which combines in-person and online learning. Our goal: educate our students while protecting the health and safety of our students, their families, and our staff.

Over the past two weeks, the State of Iowa has released increased limitations on local decision-making, after more than 75% of our families had already registered for the plan we introduced on July 1. The DMPS plan was designed to maximize both student and staff safety and academic learning. Compliance with the recent changes in requirements will place students and staff at unacceptable risk given the COVID-19 conditions expected at the time school begins. Of particular concern are the guidelines issued just yesterday, stating that the transmission rate in a community must be more than 15-20% before a school can even ask for permission to change to online learning for a mere two weeks, a level triple that recommended by most public health experts.

The State's approach over the past two weeks has created concern and confusion for parents and teachers alike. It ignores the complexities of everything that goes into how a school district operates, not only preparing for online learning but everything from transportation to meals to technology to staffing. We recognize the significant challenges that the dramatic changes to daily schedules creates for our families and we are working with multiple district partners to address childcare and other family needs. However, the very notion that a school can simply flip a switch to go back and forth between in-person and online learning ignores the reality of how schools operate, what is best for our students and families, and limits the ability of teachers to provide quality instruction.

Our reason for existence is to educate students, and that is exactly what DMPS will do in 2020-21. Whether in person or online, our teachers live to support the success of their students. But I am not going to put our staff - or their students and families - in the position of getting sick for that purpose. We can return to learn in a way that is smart, safe and realistic.

Therefore, Des Moines Public Schools is working on the following changes to our Return to Learn plan:

  1. Delay the start of the school year to shortly after Labor Day. Professional Development days currently scheduled throughout the year would be held prior to the start of classes so that the 2020-21 school year ends as currently scheduled.
  2. The 2020-21 school year would begin fully virtual across all grade levels.
  3. As soon as it is safe to do so, DMPS would transition to the hybrid learning model for elementary and middle school students who registered for that plan.
  4. High school classes would most likely be held entirely online for the Fall semester, with the exception of some in-person classes at Central Campus.

As Superintendent, I will continue to make every effort to work collaboratively with the Iowa Department of Education and the Governor about our need to take this approach to responsibly further our students' education. Finally, DMPS is prepared to take every step available to ensure a safe start to the school year for our 33,000 students, 5,000 employees, their families, and the entire Des Moines community.

Dr. Thomas Ahart, Superintendent

Des Moines Public Schools

Registration Deadline is Today!

Greetings, Mustang Families,

Online Registration:

Today is the deadline to complete online registration and select one of two Return to Learn models - virtual or hybrid. If you are unable to complete the registration by the end of the day, your student(s) will be enrolled in the hybrid model. the numbers: (as of 4:30 PM on Friday)

  • We have approximately 780 students enrolled at Merrill for the 2020-2021 school year.
  • There are currently 282 Merrill students (37%) enrolled in the hybrid model for the Monday/Tuesday cohort.
  • There are currently 274 Merrill students (35%) enrolled in the hybrid model for the Thursday/Friday cohort.
  • There are currently 219 Merrill students (28%) enrolled in the all virtual model with DMPS K-8 Virtual Campus.

Next Steps:

With registration nearly complete, we will now move forward with putting together the master schedule. This includes establishing the layout of the building given our final numbers, solving the staffing puzzle for each grade level and content area (some Merrill teachers will move to the K-8 Virtual Campus, while others will continue at Merrill), and scheduling students in a 6-period day that meets their academic and social-emotional needs. We know this will be messy and we will make mistakes, so we appreciate your grace and patience as we build the hybrid model at Merrill.

What about the board workshop on Friday?

The board workshop on Friday included discussion of two big items, neither of which were voted on. The board discussed 1.) Pushing the student start date back to after Labor Day to allow teachers more time to prepare for our new model of learning and 2.) The possibility of an all virtual start for the entire district. I will keep you informed when/if the board moves forward with either of those discussion items.

Ideas, Comments, and Questions

Please email me at with any questions you have.

Yours in preparing to welcome students back in a few short weeks,


Kathryn Panek

Merrill Middle School, Principal

A Note from the Merrill PTA

Parents, your voice is more important than ever to support the safety and quality of Merrill's back-to-school experience. Please consider making 2 important phone calls today. Click to learn more.

Get involved and learn more about Merrill's PTA:

Current Start Dates for Hybrid and Virtual

Meeting the needs of all learners

Face Coverings - Questions and Answers

Technology Update

One-to-One: All DMPS 6-8 students will be issued a DMPS laptop for use during the 2020-2021 school year. If a student borrowed a computer from DMPS in the spring, students will continue to use that computer for the 2020-2021 school year. With all DMPS students using a DMPS issued device, we will be able to provide much better technical support.

Attention: If the computer your student was issued in the spring is NOT in working condition, please contact our office at (515)242-8448 to schedule a time to drop it off so that we can repair it before school starts.

Big picture

Anti-Racist Town Hall Findings

Thank you to so many of you who participated in DMPS's Anti-Racist Town Hall Meetings.

Here are the findings:

1. The current approach to teaching, learning and assessment is driven by adults using whitewashed curriculum. To be antiracist....Students need to drive their own learning.

  • 97% of all 61 discussion groups called for antiracist curriculum, inclusive history, and/or alternatives to standardized testing.
  • Additionally, 70% of all groups advocated for more student voice in curriculum and learning.

2. The current approach to recruitment, selection, and retainment of staff produces a majority white staffing population.To be antiracist...A new hiring process needs to produce staff at all levels of the system that are representative of students’ race, ethnicity, and culture.

  • 95% of all 61 discussion groups stressed the importance of increasing staff diversity, adjusting hiring policies, and bolstering the leadership pipeline.

3. There is not consistency across all positions within the district to create positive, supportive school experiences for students. To be antiracist....The school building structure and adults who work in them need to be antiracist in every action and interaction.

  • All (100%) discussion groups called for increased focus on social-emotional learning, restorative practices, and building teachers' skills to talk about race and social justice.
  • Moreover, 30% raised the need to re-evaluate and reduce the presence of SROs and instead focus resources on counselors and student supports.

4. The current school system is perpetuating systemic racism. To be antiracist...The school system needs to be rebuilt for the students that are in our schools today.

  • 85% of the 61 discussion groups emphasized the importance of changes to the system with directions driven by the community, parents, and students, with a reduction in hierarchical decision making.
  • Also, 34% felt trust needs to be built across stakeholders.

What does this mean for next steps at Merrill?

A group of teachers and administrators at Merrill began meeting weekly as soon as the findings were released to determine the implications and next steps with our Merrill community. We are looking for community volunteers to join the conversation and help us shape our next steps with staff and students. Please let me know if you are interested by contacting me at

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