District pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students will move to a four-day model of in-person learning Jan. 19.
Middle and high school students will move to a two-day hybrid model Jan. 19.
The board voted 5-2 for the in-person and hybrid plan at Monday's Columbia School Board meeting. Voting for the plan were Blake Willoughby, Susan Blackburn, Helen Wade, Chris Horn and Teresa Maledy. Dissenting board members were David Seamon and Della Streaty-Wilhoit.
An earlier motion to remain all virtual was voted down 5-2, with Horn and Seamon voting in favor.
Under the four-day model, pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students will attend in-person classes each weekday except Wednesdays, which will be used for cleaning classrooms, giving teachers planning time and professional development training. Masks will be required, but social distancing will not be possible.
Middle and high school students will be separated into two groups.
Group 1 students will attend classes in person on Mondays and Tuesdays. On Thursdays and Fridays, they will have an opportunity to Zoom in at the beginning of their classes. They will then log off and complete individual assignments.
Group 2 students will do the opposite. They will do a combination of Zoom and individual learning on Mondays and Tuesdays. On Thursdays and Fridays, they will attend in-person classes.
Wednesdays for both Group 1 and 2 students will be used for cleaning classrooms, teacher planning time and professional development training.
This reopening plan is an adjustment of the plan approved by the board on Dec. 14. Under the previous plan, middle and high school students would have joined pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students in attending in-person classes four days a week, beginning Jan. 19.
Board member discussion
Prior to the vote, board members discussed where they stood on remaining virtual or moving to an in-person or hybrid learning model.
Blackburn said she was optimistic about the future and was looking forward to the vaccines being distributed.
Seamon reminded the board that the district had already tried in-person learning for pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students from Oct. 19 to Nov. 13. He said there were lessons learned from that experience that the board hasn't done anything to address, such as how to handle staffing shortages.
Without district employees being vaccinated yet, Seamon was against returning to in-person classes.
"We don't solve any of the legitimate concerns in this community if we do this right now," he said.
Horn agreed with Seamon, emphasizing that vaccines are not here yet and the district should remain in a virtual learning model.
Streaty-Wilhoit recognized the grave toll that virtual learning and the pandemic have taken on the mental health of district parents, children and the local community. She said that for the healing of the community, the students must return to in-person learning.
Wade said she has been in favor of a cautious approach. "I don't think it is possible to craft a response that burdens nobody," she said. "There is more than one solution to every problem, and it's our job to find it."
Wade asked that the board and community not take the vote as a symbol that the pandemic is over. She emphasized the importance of mitigation efforts and cautioned that a return to in-person classes will introduce instability and will not be consistent.
COVID-19 update, vaccination plan
Prior to the board’s discussion on the reopening plans, Superintendent Peter Stiepleman presented an update on COVID-19 rates within the district.
The number of active COVID-19 cases on the 14-day tracker Monday was 82.4 per 10,000 people. That’s above the district’s earlier rate of 50 cases per 10,000 people standard. However, it’s down from the district’s case rate all-time high of 111.7 per 10,000 people on Nov. 23.
Population numbers for the 14-day case tracker are based on people living within the district, including MU students. The 50 per 10,000 people threshold was set by the district in August as one marker in determining whether to recommend all-virtual learning.
As of Monday night, 13 district employees were in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 and 26 were quarantined after reporting close contacts, according to the district tracker. Twenty-nine students were in isolation, and 75 were quarantined.
As of last Friday, 100 district students had been tested for COVID-19 antigens, Stiepleman said. Twenty-five students tested positive, meaning the district has a 25% student positivity rate. The district’s positivity standard for staff was 16.42%, with 23 out of 140 district staff testing positive for antigens.
Stiepleman also presented data about the district’s readiness to return to in-person learning.
District bus routes have been completed and nutrition services were staffed at 85-88%, Stiepleman said. Grab-and-go meals will still be available at schools for students learning virtually.
Air ionization purifiers are being installed by a contractor in district schools at an average rate of 200 classrooms per week, Stiepleman said. Installation at 11 schools has been completed so far. District carpenters are also assisting with the installation and are completing about 20 classrooms a week.
The board voted at its Dec. 14 meeting to buy and install the air ionization purifiers. Three different types were purchased and are being installed: portable units, in-line units (installed in existing HVAC units) and larger in-line units for unique HVAC units.
The district allocated approximately $1.2 million of CARES Act funding for the effort, said district Chief Financial Officer Heather McArthur.
Also, at the meeting, the board voted unanimously to approve a resolution in support of vaccination of district personnel. The resolution is a clear statement of the board’s stance and request for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to prioritize vaccines for district personnel in Phase 1B of the vaccination plan.
The resolution defined district personnel as “all school district employees, regardless of title.” District contractors such as bus drivers, therapists and food service providers were also included in the personnel definition.
More than 200 district employees were vaccinated last weekend, Stiepleman said. The employees included school nurses and those who work to provide in-person special education services. The vaccines were administered by Boone Hospital Center.
During the public comment section, people spoke both for and against in-person learning.
Dustin Frieda, a district high school teacher, asked the board to support a return to in-person learning. He said he talks to the students and they all tell him the same thing.
"They're struggling, they're sad, they're overwhelmed, they're hurting, they're not learning and they've almost given up or they've already given up," he said. "Our kids are the ones that are paying the biggest price right now, even though they're in the lowest risk group."
Nicole Timmins Bormann, district parent of three elementary school students, was strongly in favor of remaining virtual. "We would gladly continue virtual education rather than risk exposure after months of working so hard to stay healthy," she said.
District parent Marisa Hagler wanted the board to vote for a return to in-person learning. "Our kids have fallen on the sword long enough," she said. Hagler emphasized that student's mental health and education are suffering and said the students will continue to fall behind.
"These kids need school. These kids need stability. It's time that we put the children first," she said.
Shawn Beatty, district high school teacher and parent, said that vaccines are "on the horizon." But for now, he asked the board to hold off on sending middle and high school students back to in-person learning.
"We're so close, so close," he said.
Adam Quest is a parent of two district students and a teacher at a neighboring school district. He shared his perspective as someone who had been teaching in-person classes throughout the fall semester.
"Somehow we have made it through," he said. "It's possible if you want to do it."