Columbia Public Schools is experiencing an encouraging trend with declining COVID-19 numbers, Superintendent Peter Stiepleman said in an update sent to district families.
Stiepleman shared the recorded presentation after weather conditions prompted cancellation of the Columbia School Board’s meeting Thursday. He laid out the district’s next steps and decision-making process as well as a vaccine update and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hybrid teaching not changing soon
The district will maintain the hybrid model of instruction until every employee has had the opportunity to receive the full vaccine, Stiepleman said. Masks will still be required and mass gatherings limited even after a complete in-person return, he said.
Last year, the board adopted Minnesota’s approach to reopening schools to guide decisions locally. The model indicated in-person instruction was an option when the case rate was below 50 per 10,000, which it is now, he said.
On Friday, the district’s 14-day tracker showed the case rate at 21 per 10,000 people, down from about 47 two weeks ago.
However, he acknowledged that the district’s positivity rate — 15.1% as of Monday — and case numbers put it within the CDC’s high transmission category of higher than 10%, for which virtual instruction is recommended.
“We have chosen not do that,” Stiepleman said. “We have chosen a hybrid model, and it’s working.”
As of Friday, the number of employees in isolation or quarantine was 26 and the number of students was 136, according to the tracker. By contrast, on Feb. 5, the number in quarantine or isolation was 75 for employees and 402 for students.
The board also looks at the following factors when considering changes to the mode of instruction: positivity rate, hospital rates and the vaccine distribution. Although the positivity rate is still above 10%, the hospitals have moved from yellow to green, indicating they are no longer at a high level of capacity, Stiepleman said.
He said the board wants to keep students in person as much as possible.
“We all want that,” he said. “Interacting with students in the building the last three weeks has been amazing.”
Since Jan. 19, elementary school students have attended classes in person four days a week, and middle and high school students two days a week. Parents and others continue to press the district for a full return to in-person classes, just as others continue to urge going slowly.
Employee vaccinations rising
The district has seen a “robust” increase in the number of staff vaccinated in the past week, Stiepleman said. At the Feb. 8 board meeting, he said 300 district employees had received the vaccine. Since then, an additional 320 have been vaccinated, bringing the total to 20%.
Stiepleman said he recognizes the frustration many feel about Missouri teachers not being eligible for the vaccine so far without other health or age factors, but this was the choice state leaders made.
“It is not our turn yet,” he said.
The Missouri National Education Association on Thursday demanded teachers and school personnel get prioritized in the state’s vaccination efforts. Neighboring states such as Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska have prioritized vaccinating educators, a news release said. “If these states can prioritize vaccinating educators to resume full in-person instruction safely, why can’t Missouri?” Missouri NEA President Phil Murray said.
Earlier this week, former Missouri Teacher of the Year winners made a similar public demand. Gov. Mike Parson’s communications director, Kelli Jones, said the state must remain committed to vaccinating the most vulnerable populations, citing CDC reports that indicate transmission is low in schools.
Stiepleman presented the CDC’s updated quarantine guidelines about exposure to the virus after vaccination.
The CDC had recommended that vaccinated people quarantine for 14 days if exposed to the virus. Now, vaccinated people are not required to quarantine if they meet the following three requirements: They are fully vaccinated; are within 90 days of receiving the second dose and are asymptomatic.
The 90-day requirement is because the vaccine science is still new and it’s not certain yet how long it’s good for, Stiepleman said, citing the CDC. Columbia teachers, staff and students who have been exposed and don’t meet all three requirements must still quarantine for 14 days.