Area public school superintendents met last Friday at the Rolla Technical Center to discuss many of the challenges school district leaders are presently facing as they prepare for the 2020-2021 academic school year. Districts from Crawford, Dent, Franklin, Iron, Gasconade, Maries, Miller, Osage, Phelps, and Pulaski counties were in attendance.
Also in attendance: State Board of Education Member, Mary Schrag; DESE area supervisor, Mike Wutke; Public School Lobbyist, Kay McMurtrey; and school attorneys Natalie Hoernschemeyer and Tom Smith. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Margie Vandeven connected virtually. Commissioner Vandeven expressed her deep gratitude for the leadership displayed by all school leaders throughout the summer. She acknowledged that during times of crisis, the brain doesn't rest. She further acknowledged that numbers and recommendations are changing daily which makes preparing for the school year more challenging. Dr. Vandeven emphasized that the safety and wellbeing of students and staff should remain the number one priority when developing return to school plans. "Placing a major emphasis on safety protocols will help school districts stay open, which is best for the educational opportunities for all students. Districts should create flexibility in policies and procedures as new information and recommendations are communicated throughout the school year," Vandeven explained.
Dr. Vandeven stressed the importance of local school districts maintaining the authority to make local decisions in regard to school closures whenever area outbreaks should occur. There was much discussion about how districts should respond to student and teacher quarantines and positive tests. Some of the challenges discussed was the possibility of teachers and staff deciding to resign or retire early to avoid dealing with the stresses of the pandemic. Another challenge noted was finding substitute teachers and bus drivers during the 2020-2021 school year. During the question and answer session, Mike Whittaker from the Steelville R-3 School District, expressed a concern about the marketing strategies being used by several outside online businesses targeting parents of students. Commissioner Vandeven acknowledged that students participating in outside online options could cost local school districts more than $6000 per student per year. Extensive use of outside online options may force school districts to consider reducing educational staff in the coming years. Most school districts across the state are offering their own district online options, making the need for outside online options unnecessary. "The most important component is for school districts to be able to provide the best possible learning opportunities for all students," Vandeven said.
Academic accountability through MAP testing was discussed. "At this time, the state is not considering waiving state testing for the 2020-2021 school year," said Vandeven. School districts are diligently working to provide equitable educational opportunities in both traditional seated and online formats. Regardless of which instructional practice is used, if delivered appropriately, students will learn. The quality of instruction and student learning will be assessed by the state testing. State testing is designed to assure all students have access to a high-quality education regardless of their circumstances. At a time when instructional methods vary from seated to part-time to virtual, standardized testing will be able to measure and showcase what resources and instructional methods are most effective.
New Haven Superintendent, Josh Hoener, who is on the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) Board of Directors, shared several recent MSHSAA updates. The MSHSAA does not plan to cancel fall sports at this time. Districts choosing to open with seated instruction will be eligible to participate in fall sports. Individual students choosing to be educated virtually are subject to each local school districts' policy regarding participation in MSHSAA sports and activities. Most districts across the state do not permit virtual students to participate in MSHSAA sports and activities. Districts choosing to go fully online will be ineligible to participate in all MSHSAA sports and activities. Further athletic discussions focused around spectator restrictions and developing consistency among area districts.
The majority of discourse revolved around health and safety practices as school districts plan to responsibly and safely return to school in August. Merlyn Johnson, from the St. James R-I School District, who is serving as the South Central Missouri Association of School Administrators (SCMASA) president, chaired the meeting.