Special meeting set to discuss school reopening

    The Steelville School Board met in regular session on July 16, and during that meeting members scheduled a special session for Tuesday, July 28, to discuss plans for a return to classes in August. Final preparations are being made with an input from parents.

    “The district is developing several options as we begin the school year,” Superintendent Mike Whittaker said Monday. “If school started this week, we would be returning in-person with significant changes made to enhance the safety of our students. We will also likely have an option for students to learn virtually, if that better fits their needs at this time.
    The district is in the process of finalizing our protocols at this time.
    “Students and parents will see changes in our old procedures,” Whittaker said. “There will be new procedures for riding a bus, dropping off and picking up students, for entering buildings, and how classrooms are arranged. Cleaning and disinfecting will be completed in high traffic areas more regularly.”
    Whittaker said the district still has a lot of work to do in order to prepare for a return to classes, including: what requirements will be followed; how each building will function; how special education needs will be met; how athletics, safety and security, food services, facilities, transportation, and technology will function; how communication with stakeholders will take place; how possible COVID-19 exposures will be handled; and how staff will be training before school begins.
    “The district will be prepared to move to a blended learning model if we have to do so,” said Whittaker. “In this model, students would be divided into groups and only attend in-person school two or three days per week. Virtual instruction would be required on the days that students don’t attend school.
    “We will also be prepared to move to an all-virtual learning format if we have to do so. The district invested $215,000 in Chromebooks and tablets to ensure that every student will have their own device for the school year. We also hired a technology coach to ensure that our staff is prepared to provide quality online instruction if we have to move to this model. Our teachers and paraprofessionals have already received several days of technology training for the upcoming school year.”
    Whittaker said many parents have received information from other school districts and/or educational companies offering a free public education and noted the Missouri Legislature approved a virtual learning option for students throughout Missouri a few year ago.  The program is managed through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and is known as MOCAP. This requires an application process and there are some qualifications that have to be met to qualify for these courses.
    “In some cases, this may be the best option for a student,” said Whittaker. “Patrons of the Steelville School District should know that these courses are not free as they are often advertised. The Steelville School District picks up the cost for these courses, which are approximate $6500 per student per year.”
    Several school districts throughout the state have partnered with companies outside the state to create these courses and programs. According to Whittaker, instead of local tax money going to the local school district, it is going to those other school districts in our state and those companies outside of our state.
    “Depending on the number of students enrolling in such programs, this could be very costly to the school district,” Whittaker said. “Again, in certain situations, programs like these are beneficial to meet the needs of individual students. I believe the Steelville School District has established a quality plan for our virtual platform, which is called Cardinal Academy. I believe our program will meet the needs of our students needing to learn online.”
    Whittaker said it is still undecided if masks will be required for students and staff and that the district is continuing to research discuss the issue daily. In a survey of parents, however, while a majority said they were “very concerned” or “concerned” about reopening school on August 27, they were overwhelmingly opposed to masks for both students and staff members.
    The school district recently asked parents to complete a survey regarding school reopening and 359 parents representing 665 students responded. That was about 70 percent of the district’s total families.
    Results from the survey showed by 54 percent were “very concerned” or “concerned” about a return to classes, while 38 percent were “not concerned.” Parents favored temperature checks for all students and staff members upon their arrival at school, with 67 percent saying yes to the requirement, while just 19 percent said no.
    Sixty-six percent of parents opposed requiring masks for students and 61 percent opposed requiring them for staff members. Just 18 percent supported requiring masks for students, while 26 percent wanted staff members to wear masks.
    The overwhelming majority of parents wanted some sort of safety measures in place when classes resume. Forty-five percent wanted in-person learning with safety measures, 17 percent wanted a hybrid model, and 11 percent wanted online only learning. Only 27 percent felt classes should be held with no restrictions.
    Noting how difficult social distancing would be on buses, the district asked parents if they would consider bringing their children to school if the district provided before- and after-school care. Sixty-seven percent of parents said yes, while 33 percent were opposed to the idea.
    Finally, the district asked if in-person instruction for elementary students should be a priority because of childcare conflicts. Forty-two percent said yes, while 15 percent said no, and 43 percent were unsure or had no opinion.
    Tuesday’s meeting to discuss reopening plans is scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. in the board room at the superintendent’s office. It is open to the public.