Members of the state legislature heard passionate testimony from Columbia parents, and provided sharp questioning of the Columbia School Board, in a hearing Friday.
The Joint Committee on Education held the hearing, which lasted more than five hours, to learn more about Columbia Public Schools’ decisions on virtual instruction. Dozens of people lined the halls of the Activity and Recreation Center while more than 130 watched live on Facebook.
Middle and high school students have been taking classes virtually since spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Elementary school students only recently began in-person instruction.
The hearing began with a number of students offering testimony in favor of returning to in-person instruction.
Charles Colbert, a freshman at Rock Bridge High School, said his classes for the semester were split into two quarters. This quarter he is taking four classes: civics, strength training, art and advisory. While this quarter was easy, next quarter his schedule will be loaded with most of his difficult classes.
“I’m worried I’m not going to be prepared for my classes next semester because I have not had a science, a math or a Spanish class in 10 months,” Colbert said. “If I’m not in person next semester it’s going to be a nightmare.”
Emily Smith, a parent and former district employee, said she is lucky to work from home, but she struggles to help her son when he has a difficult time, especially in math.
“The thing is, we are a lucky family,“ Smith testified, referencing her ability to stay home and provide reliable technology for her children. “I am concerned with the families who do not have those resources.”
She also is concerned about what he is missing from the school environment.
“I really worry about his social-emotional health,” Smith said. “He’s isolated. He’s lonely.”
Another parent, Cara Christianson, gave her testimony while holding back tears.
“My daughter wants to be an engineer, and she hasn’t taken math since March,” Christianson said.
While most of those in attendance harshly criticized the district and the School Board, there were at least two people who came to support the board’s decisions. Kate Canterbury, who has two eighth-grade children, was one.
“This legislative hearing largely seems performative,” Canterbury said while waiting in the hall. “I’m not sure why state reps are here to tell our local school board what to do. I support the School Board. We voted them into office.”
Even as she disagreed with them, Canterbury commended other parents for advocating on behalf of their children but called on them to get more involved beyond this one issue. During her testimony, Canterbury turned around and looked at the room, telling the crowd she had not seen any of their faces at School Board meetings she’s attended for years.
“We only had four people run for three seats in the last school board election,” Canterbury said. “Where were these people then?”
*Chimene Schwach echoed Canterbury’s concerns over local versus state issues, specifically referencing committee chair Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina.
“I’d like to know why representatives are here talking about local issues,” Schwach said. “I’d particularly like to know why the representative from Shelbina is here. She has no reason to be in Columbia.”
O’Laughlin disagreed with that statement and said the joint committee may have the power to push the district to open schools for in-person learning through public pressure.
“It is a local issue, but we are the ones responsible for spending the money,” O’Laughlin said. “The kids are doing poorly. Before long they’re going to be a year behind.”
O’Laughlin and other members of the joint committee then spent over an hour questioning Superintendent Peter Stiepleman and two School Board members.
Stiepleman said Columbia is the right place to have a conversation about school protocols because it can represent the diversity of Missouri with urban, suburban and rural areas in the city.
He also expressed empathy for the parents and students who testified.
“We all agree that we want to get our children back in school,” Stiepleman said. “We all want to be back to normal. The problem is that there’s nothing normal about a global pandemic.”
Additionally, Stiepleman and the board members — president Helen Wade and newcomer Chris Horn — said the issue will be addressed at the board’s Nov. 9 meeting.
There are three instruction options for middle and high school students: completely virtual, completely in-person four days per week or a hybrid where some students are in-person two days a week while other students are in-person the other two days. Elementary school students are using the four-day model.
Wade urged parents to understand the board takes all of the consequences into account when it makes decisions.
“There is a consequence to what we do,” Wade said. “There is a consequence to not being in-seat. There is a consequence to being in-seat.”
Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, offered pointed criticism and questioning of the School Board and superintendent, advocating for a hybrid model where families can choose whether to attend school virtually or in-person. He pointed to the high recovery rate for COVID-19 among young people.
Despite their disagreements, Stiepleman thanked Richey for remaining respectful.
“I recognize that this conversation could go a different way,” Stiepleman said.
Wade then said she and the other board members cannot complain about harsh treatment, since they chose to run for office. She also said she believes Columbia is close to evenly split on what to do about schools.
“We signed up for this,” Wade said. “Whatever decision we make is going to make Columbia very, very upset.”
O’Laughlin responded to Wade’s comment by pushing for a hybrid choice-based model like the one Richey suggested.
“If 50% of the people want to stay online, why don’t we allow the other 50% to be in person?” O’Laughlin asked.
Board member Horn responded there is not enough staff or technology to support split classes in a sustainable way.
“We all want the same thing, and we’re trying to get there,” Horn said.
O’Laughlin would later suggest that if teachers are unwilling to work in person or in a split model, there should be a threat that they will not be paid.
There was widespread discussion over whether the people at the hearing were truly representative of the wider Columbia community.
Richey said that in his experience people tend to turn out to events when they disagree with the status quo and that those who agree with how the district has handled these issues would be less likely to show up.
Schwach pointed out how few people of color were in attendance, something Horn would reference as well. Schwach said working people do not have the ability to show up at 2:30 p.m. and wait in line for hours. She was on her lunch break and was unable to speak to legislators as she had to return to work before reaching the room where the hearing took place.
“Not everyone has a supportive boss or the ability to be here,” Schwach said.
Canterbury said those who agreed with the School Board may have been scared by the event. Many attendees and members of the committee did not adhere to Columbia’s mask ordinance.
“The people that are concerned with social distancing and wearing masks, and following CDC guidelines, aren’t likely to pack into a room without masks,” Canterbury said.
On Twitter, Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, was highly critical of the lack of masks at the event.
“I find it highly disrespectful for many of my #moleg colleagues on the Joint Cmte on Ed to come to our city, disobey our city’s mask ordinance in a city building in order to trash our schools, our superintendent, and our school board,” one of Kendrick’s tweets read.