CPS considers delaying start date, using hybrid teaching model
(Missourian) - The Columbia School Board is considering delaying the district’s start date to after Labor Day at the earliest.
Labor Day is Sept. 7.
The School Board met with representatives of the Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services Department on Tuesday evening to discuss fall reopening plans. Health Department Director Stephanie Browning and Medical Director Dr. Ashley Millham both emphasized the importance of social distancing and masks within schools.
“We want kids in school, but we want them to be safe,” Browning said. “But in order to do so, social distancing needs to be the No. 1 priority.”
Now, classes are set to begin Aug. 25, and students have the option of attending class in-person five days a week or opting for online learning.
The school district’s website says it will be using a daily mode indicator to show employees and the public where they stand on access to buildings, based on COVID-19 transmission levels in Boone County and Columbia.
The daily mode indicator uses a scale ranging from level 1, meaning transmission of COVID-19 in Boone County or the City of Columbia is low enough to hold traditional school, to level 5, meaning transmission is so high that all school buildings are closed.
Superintendent Peter Stiepleman said the goal has been to begin the school year at level 3, indicating a moderate level of COVID-19 transmission in Boone County or the City of Columbia. Level 3 suggests offering in-person learning or online options is safe, but Stiepleman said that’s not the current situation.
Although the city’s mask ordinance has slowed the rate of infection, Boone County reported the greatest single-day increase Saturday, with 61 new positive COVID-19 cases, according to previous Missourian reporting.
Stiepleman said it was more likely Columbia would be at level 4 when the school year begins.
“However, level 4 currently only consists of in-person and some closed buildings and online as options,” Stiepleman said. “We believe we need to write an additional option for level 4 (in order to open at this level).”
Browning and Millham suggested the School Board strongly consider a hybrid model, where students attend class in-person part of the week and online the rest.
“If we were fully in-person right now, students would be out of school more often than not just due to having to quarantine or isolate after an inevitable case arises,” Browning said.
Teachers and community members have voiced their concerns about the district’s reopening plan. Stiepleman said he held a two and a half hour webinar with more than 1,000 employees Monday, during which the possibility of delaying the start of school came up.
Some teachers and community members stood outside the Columbia Public Schools Aslin Administration Building, where the School Board was meeting, wearing red and green shirts in opposition or support of schools returning to in-person classes.
The union representing Columbia Public School teachers, the Columbia Missouri National Education Association, sent a 14-page letter and report to the district July 28 calling for a delayed start of in-person learning, according to previous Missourian reporting.
Protesters from the Not Until It’s Safe and A Rally for Choice Facebook pages lined Worley Street and gathered — socially distanced — outside the Aslin building. The Not Until It’s Safe protesters formed a broken line down Worley Street and the building’s parking lot.
By 5 p.m. Tuesday, about 70 people wearing red shirts (in opposition to in-person classes) and 25 wearing green (in support of in-person classes) had gathered.
High school teacher Mechelle Neuerburg assisted the CMNEA Health and Safety Committee over the summer. She said she understands schools are considered a safe space for many students, but they “aren’t a safe place right now.”
High School teacher Shawn Beatty wore a red shirt and held a sign that read, “NFL and MLB couldn’t restart safely … How can schools?”
On the other side, Retired teacher Sherri Vizcarra said she thinks “virtual learning is isolated learning.”
“Students’ mental health suffers when they can’t go back to school and have a sense of normalcy,” she said.
Vizcarra said she was worried for families who don’t have resources to care for their children at home if learning becomes virtual.
“This is America, and we should have choices,” she said “I believe that most parents would agree that we know what is best for our own kids.”
Parent Robert Griffin stood with the green shirt group. He has two kids enrolled in Columbia Public Schools.
“I want to have a choice in what happens,” Griffin said.
Deborah Greene wore a red shirt at the protest. She is a retired teacher who worked for the school district for 26 years.
“It’s going to be tough to make the right decision,” she said, “and no decision is going to be right for everyone.”
Education Association President Kathy Steinhoff, one of the signees of the 14-page letter and report, attended the meeting Tuesday and said she was pleased with the conversations about reopening plans.
“I think we will continue to have conversations about what instruction looks like because it seems like what we recommended in terms of health and safety is not really being heard,” Steinhoff said. “But, we are really happy with some of the decisions that are being made. We do truly believe that everyone involved has the best interest of our students at heart.”