The Columbia School Board will vote Nov. 9 on whether middle and high schools return to in-person classes.
At Thursday’s work session, at the request of Superintendent Peter Stiepleman, the board discussed two options: either a four-day, in-person model currently in place for elementary school students or a two-day hybrid model in which students attend classes in person two days a week.
If neither is approved, middle and high school students will remain fully virtual.
The discussion followed the School Board’s 4-3 vote Oct. 12 approving the younger students’ return to their school buildings. Classes began Monday. Masks are required, but social distancing is not possible in many cases.
Under the four-day model, students attend school in-person every weekday except Wednesdays, which are intended for classroom cleaning, teachers’ planning time and professional development training.
The two-day hybrid model would have students in person on Mondays and Tuesdays or Thursdays and Fridays. Remote learning would be used the rest of the time.
Dates proposed for in-person learning for older students were Nov. 12, Nov. 23 or Nov. 30. Board members suggested these return dates for middle school students, but others discussed whether high school students could also return at the same time.
Much of the discussion centered around the pros and cons of an in-person return for the older students.
Board member Teresa Maledy proposed the four-day model for middle schools and the two-day hybrid for high schools. She based her suggestion on how well the Springfield district has done using this approach.
“There are serious consequences to not having an in-person experience available to our students,” Maledy said. She said all-virtual learning can hurt students.
Board members Susan Blackburn and Della Streaty-Wilhoit emphasized the importance of giving parents a choice on virtual or in-seat learning.
“If our numbers hold and we can bring kids back in-seat, there’s still parents saying, ‘I don’t want that,’” Streaty-Wilhoit said. She said there should be a “clear-cut option” available for staying virtual.
“We have to remember we are still in a pandemic,” board member Chris Horn said.
Horn has concerns about students returning without being able to social distance but said he would reconsider being “more lax” on certain safety measures if children are not learning well under the virtual model.
“I hope whatever decision we make, whenever we make it, it will be the last decision we make,” Horn said.
“It has to be based on information we can rely on,” board president Helen Wade said. “This is about balancing the need for an in-person education, which I value as a necessity.”
Wade said she voted against the return of middle and high school students at the Oct. 12 meeting because COVID-19 positivity rates were much higher in secondary students than elementary school students. She said the board must pick a plan that can be done in a reasonably safe manner.
Wade acknowledged students are struggling in the virtual setting, and she wondered aloud what the long-term consequences would be for their education.
“If you have information that can help us ... send it our way,” board member Blake Willoughby said, addressing listeners in the room.
Willoughby said he’s been disappointed in some community response after the Oct. 12 meeting, in particular comments that people would go to his house. He said his family was fearful because of some of the comments, and Streaty-Wilhoit and board member David Seamon agreed.
Willoughby asked the community to push universities and colleges to move online because they contributed to jumps in COVID-19 cases earlier in the school year. He said he thinks that will happen again in January.
“K-12 education is federally mandated, college education is not,” Willoughby said. “Push them to move online.”
Columbia Public Schools moved its fall start date back two weeks because of the local hike in active cases and began the year fully virtual.
MU announced recently that in-person classes will continue after Thanksgiving. Some universities will move fully online then. Provost Latha Ramchand said Thursday there is no information yet that suggests any changes need to be made to the spring semester.
At 7:15 a.m., before the work session began, about 30 adults and students stood near the parking lot entrance of the Aslin Administration Building with signs that read “What about us?” They were advocating for a return to in-person classes for middle and high school students.
Three students attended the work session, two with signs in front of their knees that read, “CPS what about us?”
Also Thursday, Stiepleman announced he will retire in June.
The next full meeting of the School Board will be at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 9 at the administration building, 1818 W. Worley St.