Effective immediately, Columbia Public Schools will pause tests, assignments and grades for three days to reevaluate instruction in light of COVID-19, according to emails sent to district staff and later families Wednesday morning.

“We need some time to adjust our expectations for staff and students,” said the emails sent by Jen Rukstad and Jill Brown, assistant superintendents for secondary and elementary education.

After reevaluation, the district will communicate clear expectations to teachers, students and families. This will include how assignments, grades and credit will be handled, according to the email.

Learning and connection between teachers and students will continue, district spokesperson Michelle Baumstark said, but stressful accountability measures like assignments, due dates and assessments are put on hold while the district reevaluates its remote learning plan.

This week, the district began instruction remotely, using alternative methods of instruction. Middle and high school students received online instruction, while elementary students used packets to continue class.

The pause comes after the district received feedback from the community that said what was being asked of students was beyond the capacity of what families could handle, the emails said.

Baumstark said there was stress related to how material is delivered online on top of different factors that families in the district are facing.

Additionally, the district’s learning management system, Schoology, experienced server issues locally and nationwide, causing technical problems for teachers and students.

Baumstark said in an email that since Monday, 77% of fifth- to 12th-graders in the district have accessed Schoology.

“We have 19,000-plus students,” Baumstark said. “This shows that our students and teachers are working to continue their routines and learning.”

She said the district is troubleshooting individual problems of student access.

“We have the added elements of different internet networks and personal Wi-Fi access to consider now as well,” she said.

The district initially planned for a two-week closure, with in-person classes resuming April 13, but new local, state and federal stay-at-home orders affected the plan.

“As we continue to experience the global pandemic, that closure has been extended,” Baumstark said. “We really need to think about what is a long-term plan. We can’t do a two-week patch. It just really needs to be reevaluated, and we need to look at how we deliver our online learning for what may be a more long-term solution.”

Boone County and the city of Columbia issued stay-at-home orders, which pushed the return date back to April 27; state and federal leaders have extended the physical distancing expectation to April 30.

“Speaking plainly, we are in the midst of a global pandemic, and it is unreasonable to believe that our mission is the same as it was on March 17,” the emails said.

Chris Drury, principal of Smithton Middle School, said the pause gives students and parents room to breathe as they make the transition to remote learning.

“That’s really what it’s all about,” Drury said. “We are not going to have grades or deadlines, but we are going to stay connected.”

The email to staff outlines procedures for the next three days for different grade levels.

For middle and high school students:

  • No assignments should be due.
  • No grades should be added to a grade book.
  • No assessments should be administered.
  • No deadlines should be hanging over students.

For elementary students:

  • Packets will remain the main source of instruction.
  • Teachers should refrain from adding more instruction or assignments.
  • Fifth-graders using Schoology should have no assignments due.

In the email to staff, all teachers were instructed to continue engaging with students and checking in on them. They were also told to ensure that family, friends, colleagues and themselves were OK.

Baumstark said the district recognizes these connections might not be possible for everybody right now and is OK with that.

“We need to step back and re-evaluate how we move forward,” the emails said. “A two-week patch is not possible. Our thinking has to change.”

Nancy White, a creative writing and American literature teacher at Hickman High School, said she was surprised there were issues but understands the current situation is a first for everybody.

White said she has received a good amount of support from both the district and Hickman’s administration, including tools to use when teaching remotely and video meetings to keep morale strong.

“In the scheme of things, whether our Schoology works for a day or two or doesn’t is not the end-all be-all,” White said.

She added that she thinks a lot about the medical personnel who are risking their lives to address the pandemic.

“The kids will get what they need,” White said. “I believe in that whole-heartedly. They’re really smart and motivated.”

Baumstark emphasized the district is not repeating the school year.

“The purpose of alternative learning, which the state has allowed for school districts,” she said in an email, “is to allow us to complete the year in an alternative method.”

For more COVID-19 related news, see our section dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
  • I am a photojournalism student at MU's School of Journalism. I've worked as an education reporter, staff photographer and photo editor for the Columbia Missourian. Reach me at ejreed@umsystem.edu

  • Elizabeth Brixey is the Columbia Missourian's education editor and an associate professor in the Missouri School of Journalism. She can be reached at (573) 882-2632 and brixeye@missouri.edu.

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