Teachers worried about returning to in-person classes in August are advocating for Columbia Public Schools to rethink its plan for reopening as the COVID-19 pandemic persists.
The Columbia Missouri National Education Association, the union representing the district’s teachers, sent a 14-page letter and report to the district Tuesday urging it to delay the start of school until after Labor Day — at least.
“At this time, we do not believe it is safe to return to in-person classes in August and we have concerns about the District’s ability to produce a high quality virtual platform in such a short amount of time,” the letter reads.
“The current data from the Boone County Health department shows the number of COVID-19 cases increasing exponentially, and Columbia will soon receive its regular influx of college students from around the state, country, and world,” it continues.
“The largest age group of COVID-19 cases in Missouri is currently 20-24. Delaying in-person learning for CPS until after Labor Day would allow sufficient time to see the impact of the return of college students on case numbers. A delayed in-person start would also allow CPS to monitor the impact of the city wide mask ordinance.... If the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Columbia do not show a decline during this delayed start time, we recommend starting the semester virtually following Labor Day.”
The letter, signed by CMNEA President Kathy Steinhoff, Health and Safety Committee Chair Noelle Gilzow and Teaching and Learning Committee Chair Kristen Burkemper, is accompanied by a document listing detailed recommendations for how the district, educators, staff and families can work to remain safe if schools reopen and how they can ensure students receive a quality education if classes are held virtually.
District spokesperson Michelle Baumstark said in an email to the Missourian that officials are reviewing the letter and recommendations.
“We’re really pleased to see how aligned we are on many of the recommendations from CMNEA related to our return to education in the fall. We did have an opportunity to review elements of their document prior to its release,” Baumstark said.
“Similarly, CMNEA participated in the development of the district’s re-entry plan that was released last month. We’re in the process of reviewing their formal report and subsequent questions.”
Some teachers, anxious about the potential dangers of returning to classrooms, were speaking out before the association sent the letter.
Jessie Starbuck, an art teacher at Beulah Ralph Elementary School, is calling for parents, residents and fellow teachers who feel it is unsafe to return to school to join her in a silent protest on Aug. 4 in front of the Aslin Administration Building, where the school board will be meeting.
“I wanted the school board, superintendent and community to see that there are teachers that are really apprehensive about in-person instruction because I feel like we haven’t been able to express that,” Starbuck said.
As an art teacher, Starbuck is considered a specialist faculty member, which means she would be in contact with every student at Beulah Ralph.
“If there are cases of COVID at my school, I will be exposed to them,” Starbuck said. “My parents who are in their 70s provide child care for my daughter, and I am terrified of bringing COVID home to them, and to my small children and husband,” Starbuck said in a post on the Not Until It’s Safe Facebook page.
“If one child, teacher, or CPS staff person dies in our district from COVID, that is already too many deaths.”
School paraprofessional Casey Holmes said she has decided to resign if the district reopens schools because she doesn’t believe that would be safe for her and her husband. Holmes, who is 63 and has asthma, explored options such as medical leave and applying for a job that wouldn’t require as much contact with children. A district administrator, however, told her the options were either to return to work or resign.
Both Holmes and Starbuck said they empathize with administrators who are trying to make difficult decisions.
“They are trying their hardest to make this safe, but they can’t. They are between a rock and a hard place.”
Teachers also had plenty of questions for Ashley Milham, medical director of the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services, during a Tuesday morning Facebook Live session. Milham said maintaining social distancing and wearing masks would do a lot to protect them and children from the virus.
“I can imagine how hard that is, especially depending on the age of your students to maintain that 6 feet,” Millham said. “As the teacher, I’m sure there’s going to be times where you can’t maintain your 6 feet of distance for a variety of reasons because you want your students to learn things.”
Millham said teachers should make periods of closer contact as brief as possible. She also suggested students be kept in smaller, stable groups when social distancing is difficult and that teachers could open windows when possible.
“If one child has developed the infection, then it’s the small group that they were sitting in that would have been potential close contacts versus anyone in the classroom,” Millham said.
Also Tuesday, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson met with a few dozen mid-Missouri school administrators and teachers in the cafeteria of Capitol City High School in Jefferson City to discuss reopening plans. Superintendents expressed their thoughts, then Parson took questions before giving closing remarks.
“We are not defenseless against this anymore,” Parson told the room. “We have got some ideas on how to do deal with this.”
Parson emphasized the importance of testing and contact tracing in schools and encouraged school districts to prioritize using federal grant money for both. He said he wanted to give school administrators “the ability to do their job without micromanaging.”
“It is clear that he is not going to tell us what to do, that he is giving local school districts control over what they do and what is best for their community,” Fulton Public Schools spokesperson Karen Snethen said. “He assured us the money is coming, and we can spend it how we need to spend it.”
Jill Verslues, who declined to say where she teaches, said Parson was receptive to ideas, but she remains wary of returning to the classroom this fall.
“We want to teach,” Verslues said. “But we also want a safe environment for our students and I am not sure that going back to school full-force is the safest for every situation.”