In a close vote, the Columbia School Board voted late Monday for a reopening plan that will send elementary school children back to the classrooms for four days a week starting this coming Monday.
Middle and high school students will continue remote learning until further notice.
The 4-3 vote came at about 10:30 p.m., four hours into the meeting. Voting for the plan were Susan Blackburn, Teresa Maledy, Blake Willoughby and Helen Wade. Dissenting board members were Chris Horn, David Seamon and Della Streaty-Wilhoit.
Under the four-day model, students in prekindergarten through fifth grade will attend in-person classes each weekday except Wednesdays. Wednesdays will be used for cleaning classrooms, planning time for teachers and professional development training. Masks will be required, but social distancing will not be possible.
Discussion among board members about the challenges of in-person teaching and learning made up much of the meeting.
Before that, though, Kathy Steinhoff, president of the Columbia Missouri National Education Association, one of two teachers’ groups in the district, presented concerns about returning to in-person instruction. Top of the list was that many students would be within three feet of each other. Steinhoff encouraged the board to hear the concerns of teachers, parents and health officials.
Both Horn, a board newcomer, and Streaty-Wilhoit spoke about the need to prioritize safety above all else.
“If we can’t provide a safe environment, we can’t educate,” Horn said.
Wade, the board president, acknowledged the difficulty in finding a balance with the decision. She was concerned about the inability to socially distance but also recognized that virtual learning is not the best for elementary school children.
“We have to be willing to evaluate and reevaluate to make sure that what we’re doing is best for our kids,” Wade said.
Streaty-Wilhoit expressed doubts that students would properly wear masks and asked the board to remember the potential human costs of opening the schools.
On Monday, the number of active COVID-19 cases on the district’s 14-day tracker was 33.3 people per 10,000. That’s below the district’s positivity standard of 50 per 10,000 people. Population numbers for this tracker are based on people living within the district, including MU students.
Public comments were heated at times.
Parent Andrea Lisenby urged board members to reopen. “As parents, we realize the importance of education, and we are doing our best to support our kids,” Lisenby said, “but it’s challenging.”
Noelle Lisenby, a fifth-grader at Rock Bridge Elementary school, shared her experience of all-virtual learning. Noelle said it was harder to stay focused and participate and feels she lacks the mental and social support she would have if she were going to in-person classes.
John Potter, who has three children in district schools, said his children are not happy at home. “It’s our (parents’) decision to decide what risk we’re willing to take to educate our kids,” said Potter, who advocated in-person classes.
Another Rock Bridge fifth-grader, Macey Putnam, said students learn better when they can go in-person and there are too many distractions at home.
A parent and two high school students supported staying all-virtual.
Other options the board considered were to stay virtual or move to a two-day hybrid model in which students attend classes two days a week and learn remotely the rest of the time.
Superintendent Peter Stiepleman presented the four-day model to the board in a special session Oct. 6. He said at the time that the two-day hybrid model wasn’t viable because the experiences of other schools showed it wasn’t a good bridge between fully virtual and fully in-person learning.
Also Monday, the board unanimously voted to approve an equity statement:
“Columbia Public Schools, through action and in partnership with families and the community, will uphold the values, policies and practices that promote cultural competence. We will accept, embrace and empower students and staff in their individual identities to establish and sustain human dignity, justice, equitable treatment and inclusiveness in the classroom and workplace.”
Stiepleman said the statement was designed for the board and administration to read and consider before approving budgets, adopting policies and hiring people.
Commenter Lara Wakefield said words weren’t enough; more accountability was needed.
“We cannot put everything in an equity statement,” Streaty-Wilhoit responded, “but we can certainly hold each one of us (board members) accountable, and that is what we will do.”