Pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students will return to a four-day model of in-person learning Jan. 19 after the Columbia School Board voted Monday evening. This was a revision of the board’s Nov. 9 vote that would have sent elementary school students back to classrooms a week earlier.

Middle and high school students were already approved to return to in-person learning Jan. 19 under the board’s Nov. 9 vote.

Following the holiday recess, district students will still begin classes virtually Jan. 5.

Elementary school students who were enrolled in CPSElementary@Mizzou and secondary students who were enrolled in CPS Online will be able to remain virtual.

Under the four-day model, district students attend in-person classes each weekday except Wednesdays, which are used for cleaning classrooms, planning time for teachers and professional development training. Masks are required, but social distancing is not possible.

The latest reopening plan may be subject to further board discussion and approval at its next meeting Jan. 11.

The board’s 6-1 vote came about 8:30 p.m., two hours into the meeting. Board member Teresa Maledy voted against the revision, saying she preferred the Jan. 11 return date. She did not give a reason.

Board member Susan Blackburn asked the board to use the extra week to talk with district teachers and employees about ways to safely support the return to in-seat learning.

COVID-19 leave, air ionization purifiers

Also Monday, the board voted unanimously to extend the option for COVID-19-related leave until June 31. The leave had been required by the government until Dec. 31. This extended leave option will apply to employees who had a close contact, are quarantining or are caring for a direct family member who is quarantining.

The board also voted unanimously to approve the purchase of air ionization purifiers. These purifiers will help to deactivate airborne contaminants.

Per the board vote, the district will purchase and install three types of air ionization purifiers: portable units, in-line units (installed in existing HVAC units) and larger in-line units for unique HVAC units.

Chief Operations Officer Randy Gooch explained that using a mix of these ionization purifiers will help to get them installed in 100% of the district’s classrooms.

“We think it’s going to make a difference in our air quality, not only as it relates to COVID, but beyond, and for other reasons,” he said.

Gooch said tests on the in-line and portable units showed that both did not produce ozone and performed comparatively and up to industry level standards.

According to the board presentation, the district will spend slightly more than $1.2 million for 168 portable units, 1,399 in-line units and 31 of the larger in-line units.

World Cafe results, COVID-19 update

Prior to the board’s discussion on the reopening plans, Superintendent Peter Stiepleman presented a summary of the 265 participant responses to a Thought Exchange activity completed at a Virtual World Cafe on Dec. 2.

The findings were gathered from a total of 302 “thoughts” and 8,734 ratings. According to Stiepleman, 49% of the participants completed the Thought Exchange as parents, 45% as district employees and 6% as community members.

Stiepleman presented the five key thoughts from the participant responses:

  • The need to wear masks.
  • The need to socially distance.
  • The need for consistency and stability for students and teachers.
  • The need for respect and appreciation.
  • The need to address staff shortages.

In regards to social distancing ratings, Stiepleman reported there were two main sides: those who positively rated statements against returning to in-seat learning and those who positively rated statements that supported a return to in-seat learning. There were 67 participants against in-seat and 32 for it. Both sides positively rated statements about the need to wear masks and the recognition that teachers are doing their best.

Stiepleman also presented an update on COVID-19 rates within the district, which extends beyond the Columbia city limits.

As of Monday evening, 19 district employees were in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 and 73 were quarantined after reporting close contacts, according to a district tracker.

*The number of active COVID-19 cases on the 14-day tracker was about 94.4 per 10,000. That’s above the district’s earlier 50 per 10,000 people standard. However, it’s down from the district’s case rate all-time high of 111.7 per 10,000 on Nov. 23.

Stiepleman emphasized the need to continue monitoring the numbers and have further conversation about reopening plans at the next board meeting.

Public comments

Four people spoke during the public comment section. Parent John Wietholder said online school wasn’t working and he had little faith in the district’s ability to return to in-seat instruction in January.

“There have been uncountable hours of education taken from our kids so far this year — I realize COVID this, COVID that,” he said. “Other school districts have made it work. We are not so unlike other districts that we can’t make it work.”

Another parent, Shannon Bryant, also shared her dissatisfaction with the district.

“My family is moving, and my kids have hope again,” she said.

Jay Reichard said he thinks teaching should be in seat “no matter what” and the district must address Zoom cancellations, develop a better plan for substitute teachers and require students to have their video on. He also expressed his discontent with the World Cafe.

Missourian reporters Xander Negozio and Keely Doll contributed to this article.

  • Education reporter, fall 2020. I am a first year graduate student studying magazine writing journalism. Reach me at hgallant@mail.missouri.edu or on Twitter @GallantHannah.

  • Education reporter, fall 2019 Studying print and digital journalism Reach me at kadthd@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700

  • Public Health and Safety reporter, fall 2020 Studying investigative journalism Reach me at xmncvc@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700

  • 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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