A new state statute requires Missouri K-12 districts to start 14 days prior to Labor Day or later, unless the state Board of Education waives the regulation. Today, the board voted to give the State Education Commissioner temporary authority to decide whether districts can start the school year earlier this fall. Under today’s action, schools interested in starting earlier must first get input by holding a public hearing at the very least and explain how an exemption would benefit the students and reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Missouri K-12 districts can request to start school year earlier this fall

Some models show an uptick in coronavirus cases is projected in the fall – possibly affecting learning for kids. During today’s board meeting, President Charlie Shields, who runs Truman Medical Center in Kansas City, says schools play a big role in the community rates of the coronavirus infection.

“Our infectious disease people – they would tell you that while children are not particularly susceptible to COVID-19, although the science is changing on that rapidly, they are very good at transmission,” says Shields.

Member Mary Schrag of southern Missouri’s West Plains says she’s been asked whether schools are liable if they start earlier and an outbreak happens.

“I really like the idea of the public hearing because I think it allows people the option to be involved in the conversation,” she says. “And then it also, I hope, prevents people from immediately going ‘Well they started too soon. Are they liable?’”

Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven says one comment received about letting schools start earlier is the impact it could have on tourism revenue. The new state statute emerged from tourism and the Missouri State Fair being affected by kids going back to school earlier. But, Vandeven says options would be good for schools.

“But all the research and everything on the national circuit of what they’re talking about how to minimize this what they’re calling COVID loss, instead of learning loss, is to really grant schools flexibility to find the right time to re-enter. Summer school would allow for optional summer schools to be taking place in August already,” says Vandeven. “So, I think some are considering looking at summer school, but there are many who are saying ‘We need to get our teachers and our students and everybody back in place in early August.’”

Speaking of summer school, the board also voted today to give the commissioner the ability to lift a state regulation this year requiring summer school to last a minimum of 120 hours. If a school makes a request to waive the requirement, it would have to demonstrate why doing so is in the best interest of the students.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is reviewing ways to narrow the digital divide among students. The COVID-19 outbreak led to Missouri’s K-12 schools shuttering their doors in mid-March and coming up with a way to reach students in a matter of days. The pandemic has shined a light on the internet connectivity gap felt by Missouri students and shows that the problem stretches through rural and urban Missouri.

Some Missouri kids are learning the old school way through packets of educational materials because they don’t have access to broadband internet. That takes a Zoom class session out of the picture for some students and so is downloading school work or having coursework emailed.

Perry County School District in southeast Missouri took the bull by the horns during the coronavirus closure. It teamed up with area organizations to deploy school buses equipped with internet hotspots to designated locations in the county. Parents and students can drive up and access the internet to get learning materials needed.

A survey the department has conducted is helping to shape the way the state tries to narrow the gap. It shows the problem runs deeper than lack of service available.

The survey provided to the board shows one in five Missouri students – about 200,000 – do not have broadband internet access and cannot learn online. The survey, with responses from the state’s 555 school districts and charter schools, says affordability of internet service and devices is the main problem.

“That’s too many. One in five. We have to work together because who’s going to tolerate one in five kids,” asks Vandeven.

To view the survey, click here.

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