If 2020 were a normal year, in less than two months parents and students would be thinking about back to school with mixed emotions. Each year some eagerly await the return to classes while others dislike the thought of going back to school, valuing their summer vacations.
2020 is anything but normal because of the COVID-19 pandemic and school districts across America are trying to sort through those mixed emotions as they find a way to safely return to school this fall.
During the Sedalia School District 200 Board of Education meeting Monday, about 45 patrons and staff members were present to provide their thoughts to the board and administration. No final decisions were made during the two-hour discussion.
The district will also be considering input from a district-wide parent survey.
Parents were asked, “Given the health and safety practices described, if conditions are similar to today, do you intend to send your children to Sedalia 200 School this fall?” The majority, 89% or 1,223 of the 1,376 respondents, said yes. A total of 153 (11%) said they would not.
According to Superintendent Steve Triplett, the administration and board appreciate the survey responses and the number of individuals at the board meeting.
“It was nice to see so many people interested in our deliberations about the return to school in the fall,” Triplett said via email Tuesday. “The conversation was cordial and (Pettis County Health Center Administrator) JoAnn Martin provided some great insights for everyone to consider.”
Martin was present at Triplett’s request to discuss COVID-19 and to respond to questions.
One of the questions was what is the biggest challenge districts including Sedalia 200 will face for the upcoming year.
Her response was direct: “Children and adults who are ill need to stay home.”
“One of the best strategies for stopping the spread of the virus is to stop the contact of uninfected people with people with the virus,” Martin told the Democrat via email Tuesday. “A significant challenge with this virus is that the early symptoms of the disease are easily discounted as being caused by something else — allergies, sinus pressure, cough which is frequently present, GI upset and the list goes on.
“Everyone has been well informed that the symptoms of the virus are fever, cough and shortness of breath,” she continued. “What is being identified now is not all positive cases have the classic three symptoms.”
Martin stressed schools will need to be extra vigilant to keep students and adults who are ill out of the school environment. Parents and guardians will need to have multiple plans to provide care for children who may be ill.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary also recognizes the importance of keeping those who are ill at home. The department recently announced it will waive the state’s attendance policy for the 2020-21 school year.
“The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is recommending all districts to terminate attendance incentive programs for students,” Triplett said. “While we know that students get a better education the more they attend school consistently, it is important for them to stay home when they are sick.”
Triplett added the district will also not offer attendance incentives for staff. He explained if faculty and staff are ill they need to stay home and seek proper care. The district also recognizes the need for staff to take care of their own children if they become ill.
In addition to parents, Sedalia 200 administration has also surveyed the staff.
When asked, “if conditions are similar to today, what is your comfort level returning to work in August?” 71% of the 480 respondents (342 individuals) said they would be very comfortable or somewhat comfortable. Twenty-nine percent (138) said they would be somewhat or not comfortable. Teachers and staff are set to return for workshops the last week in August. Students will begin classes Sept. 1.
“While a strong majority of the staff members who responded expressed comfort in returning to school, a significant number expressed reservations,” Triplett noted. “We are listening to their concerns as we formulate plans for the fall.”
One concern for both patrons and staff present Monday was the issue of face masks. As with other factors, no decisions have been finalized but at this time masks will be optional, according to Triplett.
“We will do our best to provide masks for those who request them,” Triplett said Tuesday. “Students will be provided masks with permission from a parent or guardian.”
There are a number of other challenging issues including transportation and possible gaps in learning from the temporary closure of schools. One thing all parties seem to agree on is the need to return to “normal.”
“Area school boards, superintendents, faculty and staff have many challenges to determine how to return children to school safely,” Martin said. “In-person education is more than just learning to read, write and do math.
“School is where children learn to socialize, receive a wide variety of support services, interact with peers and teachers and much more,” she continued. “Keeping children isolated at home has impact on the children, their parents and community in general as parents may not have safe places for their children to be while they are at work, parents may not have the ability to help their children with subjects they never had the opportunity to study and a variety of other issues.”